Wednesday, February 27, 2013

End of An Ill Era




As the dwindling frequency of posts here might indicate, I've been putting my time and energy into other things than Ill Wind these past months. Been doing less writing and more living. I've begun a new phase of existence, a phase of committing whole hog to the path of healing (both being healed and helping to heal others; not that the two can be separated), paring down the inessential, and working hard to stand strong in that idiosyncratically human role that seeks to connect heaven and earth, subtle and gross, spirit and form. It's been an incredible ride so far, and it's just getting started. I can hardly believe the amount of work on the horizon, nor the magnitude of the blessings that have come my way thus far. That seems to be the deal: commit fully to service, get on the high road towards realizing your potential, lean into every fear, be healed in the process, never stop evolving, never stop working. Plenty of perks, plenty of growing pains. All things considered, it's a good deal.

I had the opportunity a couple of months ago to publish an article over at RealitySandwich.com on "Answering the Call: the Medicine of Destiny." In it I liken life to a quest within a quest. This is far from my idea; so many of our most beloved stories are based on the quest archetype and the idea of the unlikely hero. On the face of things, many of our lives fail to resemble epic stories. But each and every life contains the germ of such a story; far removed as we tend to be from our soul's purpose, the initial quest is to discover what our quest is.

In my experience, during this stage we don't know what it is we're looking for, but we know we're looking for something. Most of us have had times when there's an overwhelming, buoyant sense of being "hot on the trail." Synchronicity comes into play; we have remarkable dreams; something is going right. Even when we're "cold," the universe seems to conspire to let us know that we're barking up the wrong tree. Doors slam in our faces, relationships or jobs reach a dead-end. Time to explore another passageway in the maze of life.

I can trace "getting warm" inklings all the way back to early childhood, when I felt a deep yearning to understand the mysteries of the cosmos, black holes and the like. Along with this interest in cosmology, my mystical inclination were prefigured in an experience I had as a five-year old or so--I don't remember the dream, only that it was vivid and momentous, and that I woke up with the powerful sense that waking reality is no more ultimate or absolute than dream reality. My childhood, sheltered and idyllic, was an incubator for curiosity.

Adolescence tends to throw a wrench in the works of following one's guiding star, as we simultaneously confront our own and our peers' unconscious contents, our appetites and drives and neuroses. In my case, marijuana seemed to offer both a hazy haven and a link back to the wonders of childhood. In this sense it briefly served a purpose, encouraging a broad outlook and keen appreciation for beauty, but it quickly became a fixture of the identity I found myself needing to construct in high school. It stunted my emotional growth by allowing me to escape into its realm at will.

College brought my first real brush with the energy of focus, constriction, discipline represented by Saturn. Motivated to quit smoking pot largely by an exciting new relationship with a girl who was uncomfortable with my use of substances, I made my first personal sacrifice and stepped unwittingly onto the uphill path of transformation.  The following years were characterized by an increasing sense of urgency to find my purpose and a succession of false starts--forays into agriculture and the restaurant industry. Looking back, each stage played a role in the path that was to unfold. At the time, I had the sense that something important was in the works, but I couldn't yet see what, exactly, or how, and certainly not when. I tried to connect the dots, but couldn't get a clear image to emerge, since too many of the dots were missing. Yet there were flashes of knowing, certain activities and interests that lit up my world. I knew these would somehow play a role in what I was supposed to do in the world: time spent in the woods identifying plants. Music, from the Beethoven my father loved and whose late sonatas I would still stumble through on the piano to the Nepali hand drum rhythms I brought back with me from my semester abroad. Concocting and brewing things in the kitchen. And I was strangely drawn to diverse religious traditions, especially those of the Southasian and Afro-Caribbean worlds. What could tie all these strands together? All I knew was that I needed to keep "following my weird," and that the path would surely lead somewhere. Eventually. Hopefully.

Through various detours and lessons, some of which life has had to be drill into me again and again, I can finally say that it has. The first stage of the quest has come to a close--I know enough now of what my purpose is to start getting to it, or at least allowing myself to be prepared in a much more focused way than before. Surveying the territory below and behind me, I can appreciate every detour, every morass, every tough patch of climbing. The path I took may not have been the most direct route to where I am, but it was the path I needed to take.

And now I stand gazing at the rugged and starkly beautiful landscape that stretches before me. Rows upon rows of high peaks. Thin air, the sound of the wind; a narrow rocky trail at my feet. High above, a raptor's screech pierces my reverie. Time to get moving.

                                                    *    *    *

This will likely be the final post at Ill Wind. It's been a good run (this one makes 109 posts) and a remarkable five years. I plan on maintaining my medicine-focused site, RootsofNourishment.com, and to continue writing for other sites, including RealitySandwich.com and DeepestHealth.com. And I will continue to update the sourcebook page on this site as a kind of log of the books and ideas that have served pivotal roles for me as markers and sources of inspiration.

That's it. Fare thee well!






Sunday, January 20, 2013

Axioms of Meditative Practice


Axiom: A proposition that is regarded as being established, accepted or self-evidently true; a proposition on which an abstractly defined structure is based.

Axioms
With thanks to Jacob Handwerker for #1

* SITTING IS ALWAYS TIME WELL SPENT (no matter how many things you can think of that you need to do)

* X AMOUNT OF TIME SITTING IS WORTH MORE THAN X AMOUNT OF EXTRA TIME SLEEPING (and that post-meditation nap makes it all worth it)

* THE MORE STRESSED YOU ARE AND THE LESS TIME YOU HAVE TO SIT, THE MORE CRUCIAL TO PRIORITIZE SITTING (be the calm at the eye of the storm)

* WHEN UNSURE OF WHAT TO DO, SIT! 

* A FEW MINUTES SITTING IS MUCH BETTER THAN NOTHING, AND TEN MINUTES A DAY IS BETTER THAN AN HOUR ONCE A WEEK (consistency is key)

* SIT FIRST THING IN THE MORNING AND LAST THING BEFORE BED, EVEN IF ONLY FOR A MOMENT.

* WHEN RESISTANT TO SITTING, RELAX YOUR FOCUS. WHEN BORED BY SITTING, TIGHTEN IT.

Monday, December 10, 2012

This Too Shall Pass: Vipassana Days 7-10


Day 7

5:55 AM
Slept in. Feeling calm and peaceful after last night's struggle. Could this be the calm at the eye of the storm, the vertex of the hourglass? 
Dreams were of banishing the demons from the five directions of the house. A clear message.
The difference between pathological & physiological hunger is clear now. The one is urgent, desperate, affects brain chemistry as the bugs say "feed us!" The other is gentle and persistent, like the earth waiting for rain.

7:15 AM
Ah, the war is far from over--hunger had ebbed some by breakfast time so ate extra lightly and carefully, just some rice porridge with veg. Reaction in system was fairly violent, spasmodic, with strong cravings for sweets, fat, bread! That's got to be another intelligence. I prevailed, observing with equanimity the typical wrong-thing-to-eat blood sugar swings and unease, only now with the understanding that it's only the 'wrong thing' from the parasites' point of view. What a process! Keep on guiding me through, i want to win this once and for all and get over these issues.

12:40 PM 
...Today's literally the first day so far without some major breakthrough, release, or insight. I'm getting spoiled! Then again it's early yet...

4 PM
Yep, this afternoon funk (now passed) was definitely due to eating a bit too heavily at lunch. Such a hard pattern to break! And when I do succeed as at breakfast it's easy to tend too far in the other direction. Trick is a middle way, appropriately enough--to enjoy without overindulging. Key moment is not following the strong impulse to extend the pleasure of eating by automatically going to get seconds. Working on it. Trying to have compassion for myself. A deep samskara
Thinking about family today--tomorrow's Thanksgiving--and how it will be good to get the Hadas clan assembled, perhaps in a year from now or the following Christmas. Seemingly no good reason we don't get together regularly, except inertia...it sticks with me that the family tree itself is the life-form, all of us just leaves on it. 

9:15 PM
Overall a quite restless day even after restoring my yang qi with some Bengal Spice tea (who knew?). Restlessness peaked during the rather repetitive discourse, Goenka starting to seem overbearing--his is virtually the only voice I've heard in over a week. But that feeling dissolved once I started to observe it, and the recognition came that the problem was with me, not the discourse. I eased out of the tension, which was of course physical in part, and settled back into the moment. Thus the final 40 min sit of the day was a good one, the first concentrated but relaxed one all day. Sometimes the trick is not trying too hard. Homestretch now...

Day 8

11:40 AM
Realized at some point during the morning group sit that my running scared dream last night may have been telling me to stop running from the work and letting my demons chase me--like Ged, I need to make the hunted into the hunter. With that in mind I sat through from 8 to 11 with only 2 short breaks. There was a definite shift in the depth and character of the meditation and my equanimity was more comprehensive. Realized how antagonizing my 'gut gremlins' is counterproductive. With that momentum, headed into lunch aiming for victory over any overeating. Small initial portion, time between bites, some awareness of sensation, then conscious 5-10 min wait before deciding a very small second helping was fine. Very tempted to celebrate the victory with a Thanksgiving cookie (the only sign that it's a holiday), but that'd have been like celebrating sobriety with a drink. Marched out of there proud, not the least bit overfull. This is what it's gonna take at pretty much every meal, maybe for as long as I live. Discipline, patience, trust. 
The plan is to keep up the full sitting schedule through Saturday morning [when the vow of silence and serious meditation end]. Finish strong.

5:30 PM
Have overcome, for the time being, any trace of aversion to meditating, to the point where breaks are hardly necessary. Continuity of practice, indeed. Deep in the zone this afternoon once over the hump of a challenging 2:30-3:30 group sit during which I felt almost naked--realizing that the Earth [eating] issues are/were self-limiting, yes, but also protective. Food as security blanket. Because underneath there's...deeper fears. I think of myself as not particularly afraid of death but, starting to feel sensation radiating off the Water organs, I was reminded of my childhood terror of black holes. This all may be only a sneak peak at future work, but we;ll see how much can be got through in one more day.
I think it's safe to day that the next time I do this, whenever that is, I'll be ready to forego the snack stash. But maybe not the notebook and (miraculously still writing) pen. 

Day 9

4:30 AM
Reached great depths once again during evening group sit, during discourse, during final sit of night, and continuing into and through the night, when I would wake with full-body tingling--dissolution, bhanga jnana. As assistant teacher Van instructed, don't get attached to the state...still, a notable way station on the path. 

11:30 AM
Tough morning of sitting, perhaps predictably after last night. Had to be reminded that what matters is the equanimity and the effort, not the kind of sensation. And that this morning's "solidifed, intensified, gross sensations" (pain, heaviness, etc.) mean that some deep patterns were shaken loose yesterday. In any case, I worked through it and through lunch, eschewing the sweetened cornbread and any seconds. Feeling optimistic again--small victories--after another taste of the oppressive feeling that the Work is too great. One step, one day at a time. I am indeed being asked to give everything I've got, and as that strengthens me, I'll be asked to give that much more. Such is the process of growth, elevation, evolution...take your pick. 
I do believe I'll have the grit and determination simply not to stand for any significant backsliding once home. Jettisoning old habits, encouraging new ones...and with plenty of work to keep me positively engaged. Really, if I can avoid chasing sensory pleasures especially food then I'm sure to make progress.

5:30 PM
And over the last major hurdle--this afternoon 3.5 hour block of meditation. I had a strange sense of foreboding, a tightness in my chest, going in to it, and indeed I had to work like a dog but it was beautiful work, dealing mostly with an apparent connection between my liver channel and my neck/occiput. More energy moving now below, and less stuck up top. Hopefully that mechanistic/analytic tendency I've been noticing has been reduced. It's a fine interplay, having goals for the fruits of the practice but staying equanimous moment to moment with sensations. Anyway, feeling greatly unburdened now, another fleeting sensation I suppose but a welcome one nonetheless. Others seem mostly still in it; some may not realize that Day 10 is like everyone birthday all at once. Just 90 more minutes of sitting (which is nothing) and a discourse 'til then. Not that I'm counting.

9:20 PM
This has been a wonderful opportunity to align, purify, and strengthen myself, and to embody the shifts of the last two months or so. I'm duly grateful. But I am so. Ready. To. Be. Done!

Day 10

7:15 AM
Back on track after a spill: nut butter ball snack that I allowed myself before bed last night didn't sit well--too rich, too late, plus it's hard to really eat mindfully when you have to be clandestine about it. Lay in bed burping for a while, then had a night of regressive dreams--various debauched party scenarios. Woke feeling gross, but took it once again as an opportunity to put the technique to work. Made much progress cleaning up the mental mess and had a good breakfast. Shower time now, then our last sit before metta [loving kindness meditation] instructions are given and noble silence ends. Yes, this too shall pass. 

8:40 PM
What a day! Though I knew it was coming it's as hard to fathom the shift after silence ends and the "balm" of metta is applied as it is to remember the feel of summer sun during the depths of winter. Not just sweet release and relief but, this time, a tangible groundedness and sense of strength. These things will demand maintenance, of course. But this evening I felt how I've started filling out these new clothes of mine, growing into whatever measure of authority I've gained. Experience speaks, and in the last couple months I've gained like a Dungeons & Dragons character a good deal of it. No shortage of role models and elders around, but I no longer feel like a complete novice, either. This was all apparent talking to co-sitters R, K, A et al at dinner and earlier, feeling the way they looked up to me and finding myself comfortable with the big brother role...

Was thinking about D and now R and realizing that I have sometimes mistaken karmic connection of one sort or another for romantic attraction. Sometimes it may be both, but the message is to pay attention to these seeming crushes and follow the connection wherever it leads, without pigeonholing it.

Drive home tomorrow with passenger J, who promises to be interesting and good company. Curious to discover what his others "axioms" are, the first one being "sitting is always time well spent."

Day 11

Up at 4, final discourse and chanting, breakfast, packing, cleaning, ready leave by the time the sun's fully up.  Expect to be back in Portland by 11 AM. And now the real work begins. 


Sunday, December 2, 2012

Through the Neck of the Hourglass: Vipassana Days 4 - 6





Day 4   

5:20 AM

Slept in by increments; getting up even an hour late was an act of will. Slightly stuffy and with Bach in my head suggests more grieving to come. Good, venga. 

A dream: In Vermont with the boys, me looking for a hatchet, find one on the ground along with a handsaw. I pick up the latter and start playing it rhythmically, Dave joining in the improptu hand tool jam session. Sounds like Rage Against the Machine, Tev comments wryly. 

10:10 AM

Did get around to a little sitting this morning despite late start (only here is getting up at 5 AM considered sleeping in). Accessed another vein of grief: more tears for Dad, this time mostly over the period when he was starting to get sick, the whole Jersey City episode...tears of shame and anger--that's not what the hero of the story's supposed to do! And tears for what my mother went through, her naive (or native?) saintliness...tears, too, for poor [cat] Cleo, whom I loved so much, so uncomplicatedly, like we were blood. Scratch that, family's much more complicated than that...

I was wondering if I'd find myself mourning myself--my old self--now that he's dead. Nothing came this morning and I didn't force it, but there in the hall after the group sit I thought of Eti [beloved stuffed elephant growing up] and that opened the floodgates. I headed to the vale to really let it out and ended up mentally performing a cremation ceremony. Along with my body I piled my old toys, my clothes, all the foods I used to love to eat (Sal & Carmine's pizza!) or drink (everything!) or cook (all that rich French fare). Cleo's little body. Bags of weed. Every vice and crutch I could drum up. And then Eti, physical recipient and remnant of so much of my childhood love, worn away through constant fondling to a navy blue nub no longer even remotely recognizable as an elephant except to me and perhaps Mom, who patched him dozens of times. Eti I put on my chest, under my folded arms. I poured gasoline around the base of the pyre--might as well go out with a bang--hesitated a moment, then struck a match and flicked it at the ground. Stepped back, away from the sudden blast of heat, and watched it burn. Tears and silent screams, over and over. Watched my hair burn off, my skin char and blacken, my teeth crack and eyeballs boil. Eti smoked then vanished in flame. When the blaze had died down I went and cradled my charred skull--so small--then struck it with a stone. I swept the few bony remnants into the river--Bagmati or the Ganga--turned my back, and walked away. Realized I've never felt so strong. And that, while there's been no going back ever since the first initiation this Fall, and certainly since [early November], now there is literally no way back. I've burned my bridges and probably my britches, rolled the rock in front of the entrance to the tunnel. The only way out is through. 

Bring on the next six days, this is wonderful training. A sacred time, as I pass through the neck of the hourglass. 

After lunch

I'm curious what's next! No reason to think the mourning and grieving will stop, but what's the next layer of the onion? So much can still happen this week to ground and embody this great change that's reshaping me into a fit vessel for the light. They said they'd do it! And Esu told me it would take everything I've got to become a healer. It seems they were both right. 

Only just starting to fathom the levels and implications of this metamorphosis. My appearance has already shifted quite a bit. Next up is diet, which is overdue anyway; social life will have to be different, as every move is to have a purpose. Living situation? No need to move, I think, just clean up, de-clutter, get rid of the baggage of the old me who wanted to be everything, have everything, do everything. 

4:55 PM

Re my question of what's next, didn't have to wait long to find out. Despite eating what seemed like a moderate portion at lunch, the meal didn't sit well, and I was reminded just how precarious these reveries and states of alignment can be. Again and again, despite my best efforts and intentions, my digestion and deep-seated patterns over food throw a wrench into the works. At meals discipline alone (how much to eat) isn't enough, discernment isn't enough (what to eat), relaxation not enough (how to eat). Seemingly no reliable formula. So I'm back to my initial intention of rooting out whatever's at the bottom of this issue. Shining the light of awareness into the depths. Xango's excited for the battles to come, while I'm a little nervous. 

Day 5    

Precious ink! [Worried that my only pen would run out]

Dreams set at Cathedral School...and yes, it was in middle school that I internalized that what matters most is what others think of you. The hair gel, Jnko jeans, skateboard, guitar, that awful haircut...somehow it all must have gone to my belly and taken root there as a fear of ostracization, i.e. of starvation. I even remember tightening my abs in front of the girls at the swimming pool in 8th grade. No wonder the Baishao abdomen to this day[Chinese medicine talk for tense rectus abdominis muscles]. 

Bringing awareness a good first step. Also key, I realize, is not gumming up the process by overeating, feeding the fear. Trust that you'll be nourished as you need to be, and for now keep the stomach unburdened. Breakfast just now = scant portion of congee and ginger/mint tea. Keep it up. 

Situation is complicated by the gu buggies [parasites] that have occupied the no-man's land in the gut and that have their own intelligence and will. Say 'feed us!' with sugar, dairy...get right into the brain chemistry and activate cravings, etc. Have to be firm and vigilant {as Goenka would say) and compassionately kick them out. Terraforming the swamp, y'all can't live here no more! Digestive issues were what got me into Ayurveda and onto the healing path--but now that I'm committed to this path, they no longer have a purpose to serve. Thank you, you may go! 

Day 6

9:40 AM

Rainy again after hints of clear skies this morning. Yesterday was hardest rain we've had--beautiful Northwest yin season weather. 

Forgot to write last night of my 6-7 PM sit, during which I practiced metta as I thought it might be my last sit of the course [I had almost convinced myself that my work was complete at the end of Day 5 but ended up flipping some coins to consult the Yi Jing and staying after receiving the Qian trigram--three yang lines--pure transformative energy]. White light pouring into me and through and out--I was able to focus it on individuals, gently rain it down on the room, or expand it in a diffuse glow. Tuned in myself, it was crystal-clear that the light work is simply a tuning up. New Age talk of higher vibration actually captures it fairly well. (Time I embraced my New Ageyness...) From a Chinese Medicine perspective, the work is to transition through the neck of the lemniscate, the vertex of the light-cone hourglass, which means Spleen-style transformation to subtler reality and into the field of the Heart. [Diagrams of lemniscate/infinity symbol and its equivalence to the hourglass, to Shango's axe, the light-cone from which parabolas, circles, and ellipses are derived]. The vertex at the neck of the hourglass is where the Spleen's pure yang hexagrams meets and fits into the Triple Warmer's pure yin, like key into lock [more diagrams] opening the gates to the kingdom of heaven within. 



Understanding more and more that my path is that of the warrior but in this spiritual realm, and that what feels like training is in fact part of the real work, as in Ender's Game. (More and more, stories turn out to have gotten it right from the start.)

The greatest danger after the course is the temptation to celebrate (necessarily partial) victory by taking a rest, coasting on the momentum of these 10 days, a strategy which would soon turn into backsliding. There's only spiraling up or spiraling down, no such thing as hovering in place. Have to keep up the work--not that my guides would let me get away with coasting for long. Still, have to make sure to come out swingin'. 

Metaphor of Vipassana as process of tempering steel is dead-on. Heat/tapas of adhitthana sits removes impurities from the metal, makes it stronger, harder, better able to hold an edge. Then have to care for the blade afterwards, keep it cleaned, oiled, honed. Tools = more sitting, martial arts, qigong, and spirit work.

9:10 PM

Tonight's evening group sit one of the hardest of the whole course so far--very hungry. Though I suspect it was the parasites causing a ruckus, messing with my brain chemistry through their gut interface. The tide of the battle turned when I zeroed in on the unpleasant sensation associated with the hunger--it was flowing from the stomach right up to the heart. Not surpsingly. First skirmish, or what? Probably too much to hope for that this was the main battle against the belly darkness/buggies. Every meal is a battle against craving, anyway...at least by that measure I'm leagues ahead of the last course (in 2010) when I overate at almost every meal. Here I've been good except for 2 or 3 times, such as at lunch today when the sweetened peanut sauce sent me into a minor feeding frenzy and I didn't chew well, ate fast, paid for it. And the work goes on! Almost two-thirds of the way through... 




Monday, November 26, 2012

Notes from a Meditation Cell: Vipassana Days 0 - 3



This morning I finished a 10-day Vipassana course, my second. After the first course two years ago I told myself I'd never put myself through it again--the deprivation of every source of pleasure, from sleep to food to human contact and physical warmth. The ten days felt like ten weeks, as every one of my insecurities and weaknesses was hammered on relentlessly from 4 AM to 9 PM. On Day 4--the days are very definitely numbered--something in me broke; I desperately wanted to run away, but something in the eyes of a compassionate volunteer server pierced through all my excuses and let out a flood of stress and grief. I had a grand, cathartic cry in a grove of Northern Illinois hardwoods and realized I was somehow over the hump; I'd weathered my big storm, if just barely, and I would persevere. I even surrendered and settled into the work at times, despite a couple of exuberant 'jailbreak' jaunts when I waltzed off the center grounds and went singing down a rural midwestern road at the newly-returned red-winged blackbirds. At the end of the course I felt very clean and clear but more than anything simple overjoyed to be free. I'd survived Vipassana, and once was probably enough.

But life has a way of bringing one around to whatever one's most resistant to--that's where the growth is, after all. And I knew deep down how good for me this practice was. And while I may tend towards laziness at times, may kick and scream and drag me fight, deep down I know that the only thing harder than committing to doing the work is failing to do it. Is not answering the call. 


So it was that a month ago, on a moody, brooding Saturday night, borne down by Saturnian pressures beyond my ken, I consulted the Yi Jing for general guidance and received Hexagram 33, Retreat. I tried to pretend that this had nothing to do with Vipassana. But there was the fact that Vipassana had come up in conversation twice in the last week or two; this was the third time. And to make matters worse, my copy of Liu Ming's translation of the Yi actually made reference to a "ten-day" "fasting of the heart." My own heart sank. I knew what this meant. The next day I went online and signed up for the thanksgiving course at the local center in Southwestern Washington state. I know when I'm beaten.


I made a few concessions. If I was going back into that prison system again--never mind that the real prison bars are mental ones--I was going in prepared. I packed myself an illicit survival kit containing snacks ("old students" are supposed to eat nothing each day after the 11 AM lunch), a notebook and pen, and some light duty chinese medicine supplies. Also the plastic toy axe (He-man's) and red clenched fist (Spiderman's) that I'd found one sunny afternoon in September. I was going into battle, after all, and I was going to need all the weapons I could get. 


What follows are excerpts from my notes from the last ten days. In places I've added to them for the sake of clarification, and removed names a few personal details deemed too juicy for this site. But I haven't embellished much or polished off many of the rough edges. Here it is then: a view into the fishbowl of the mind turned in on itself.  


Day 0 



synchronicity: assistant teacher Van Shafer is the same one I had two and a half years ago in Illinois.

First sit felt good: remember stay relaxed, supple in mind and body. 

It feels right to be here. 

Day 1
Lunchtime
It’s different this time: not a question of whether I can make it through, but of how much garbage I can make it through.
Dark seeds in belly; judgmental habit lodged in neck; L shoulder (whatever that is in there).
Clear too that I’m stronger, less fearful, elss judgmental than last time, 2 1/2 years ago. Though we’ll see how I fare when the storms come.
Dream last night: Iya comes and bestows upon me a white-winged pen. No need to feel guilty about this little enterprise, I guess!
Frost last night. Pang of sadness--how precious life is!




Evening

I’d almost forgotten how long the days are...! No storms yet, just a few waves. Overall settling into the routine fairly quickly. Hopefully striking a good balance between working hard (which is what I’m here for) and doing what I need to do to make it, well, do-able...ah, the monk's life. 
Been eating lightly, will keep it up. Avoiding caffeine, sugar, even dairy. Cleaning it up--which I also realize it's time to do once I'm home. more proud omnivory for this filho da santo. 

Day 2
4:30 AM
Night of light sleep, interesting dreams. In one of them, someone comes to tell me that the battle ahead is indeed to rid myself of the dark, negative energy held in my center. It's clearly what continually threatens to pull me off the straight & narrow--the fear that I won't be nourished and so must grasp at opportunities to feed. Nonsense. Yet I have continued to be driven astray by my stomach regularly. No more! It's not going to be a pretty process, of course.

Lunch
First surge of strong emotion during breakfast break, quite unexpectedly: heard Bach's Goldberg variations in my head, thought of dad, and headed for the walking paths for an explosive cry. More just now, after lunch, I had no idea I still had so much grief. Lord, I miss him, the George I barely knew in some ways. His humor, sense of irony, the way he played piano. It's not just grief; there's also anger at the injustice of losing him so young--hot tears, here--and shame at standing by helpless as his mind deteriorated. God, that day of having to trick him back into the care facility in White Plains...the horror of him imprisoned at those institutions, how he hated it [and yet there was no alternative]. 
Great release, but I suspect it's just the tip of the iceberg. Fine with me if this sets the tone for the next 8 days--work hard enough on the cushion to dredge this stuff up, then give myself time & space enough to process it...
A perspective on this period: an inversion as I squeeze/am squeezed through the neck of the hourglass. Being readied for service. So much has been funneled into me; now it will be funneled through me and out to the world. For that I need to be clean and strong. Working on zhi, the will. 

Day 3
10 AM
Intense, beautiful morning. Heard the Goldberg Aria a la Glenn Gould (1982 version?) and knew it meant more release, so headed to my little 'vale of tears' and lt out some more grief and a lot more rage. Silent howls and roars--'why?' and 'I want him back!' To which the answer came, 'then you have to be him,' to live into him. Raging against whatever force took him--and laying down the gauntlet, challenging that force to come get me. First flashes of warrior power--the red heart. I sense that as my grief is released, my long-stymied anger and with it strength will become accessible: in Chinese medicine terms, metal ceasing to stifle wood. Wood, in turn, will feed fire, as the flow through metal will nourish water. As always earth is at the center; gumming up the pivot by over- or mis-eating was a sort self-limiting safety strategy. But that's a dying trend; I'm amazed really at how easy it's been to avoid overeating here. Never has it been clearer what wholism means in healing--a rising tide (or an infusion of spirit) lifts all ships. The five phases are either supporting one another or hindering each other. 
God, I can't believe it's only Day 3. So much is happening, and the 'operation' proper hasn't even begun...
I continue to be blown away by the way my life is taking on the contours of story. 'Our lives are not our own,' indeed [Quote from the recent movie Cloud Atlas]. Seeing my time up until now in a new light: my mother's protectiveness, fear that I won't be nourished--I absorbed these along with lots of love in her very mother's milk, though I'm sure that she was responding even then to some perceived issue in me. Complications of intertwined karma. And the early loss of my dad--it's as though that was contrived to serve as a wake-up call, a call to arms, my raison d'etre as a soldier for the light. So much strengthening lies ahead (red color) while maintaining clarity, purity, compassion (white). 
What an incredible journey life turns out to be (and to have been all along). And it's not even noon. Back to work. 

After lunch, 12:00
May have failed a little 'pop-quiz' by eating a cookie at lunch...no real harm done of course, but it reveals a certain impulsiveness that can subvert high principles and determination--the subconscious overriding the superego. What's a tiny bit troubling is not that I did go ahead so much as that I didn't pause and make a fully conscious decision.
To think that I ever thought of this [place, experience] as 'hell.' This morning I came within 15 feet of a doe and two fawns--totally calm, just like at Breitenbush almost exactly a year ago. They know.  When it stops raining, I think I'll go and have a heart-to-heart with the red cedars. 

9:15 PM
re strength, red cedar says it "comes from the roots" and something about having to pull against gravity. No real surprises there. I also caught a glimpse of how tiny and young I look to these ents...
Tough afternoon sit--did my first adhitthana sit (meditating for an hour without changing position or opening eyes or hands), successfully, but I forgot what it's like when the last 20 minutes feel like their own hour and then the last 5 minutes do as well. So three times the benefit? I reckon. It left me in a sober, somewhat somber frame of mind, full of foreboding at the magnitude of the work both in the next week and the next few years and forever, really. Came back to my room at evening tea break, did push-ups etc., and symbolically cut my carotid arteries with the plastic Xango axe. The old Jonathan lies beleding out on the floor. I wonder if I'll find myself mourning him.
No more major grief release despite continued inklings of Bach. There's surely more there, but the 'medicine' may have moved on. Now we're strengthening the mind. Also starving out the gut gremlines, whom I'm so used to feeding at the slightest whimper. Makes me think regular little fasts wouldn't be a bad idea at all. 
Belly rumbling now, though. Nine hours since lunch, nine more til breakfast. 
There will be tough moments and hours ahead, but in some ways I feel I'm already over the hump here. My pride's intact and I doubt anything that the remaining week holds in store will break it.
Even though I find myself counting down the days (hard not to when they're numbered), I know I'll be back here again. I may even learn to enjoy it. 




Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Two Memorials






I have a perverse fondness for air travel. I don’t enjoy the hassle, the rush, the stale air and overpriced food, of course, but there’s something about being strapped into a sealed metal tube for hours on end that gives one a sense of perspective. Sometimes when I’ve got a window seat and the weather’s clear, I’ll spend most of a flight gazing at the patchwork of civilization down below, and at its intersection with wilderness. It’s beautiful to see how limited we still are by the lay of the land, how little we’ve touched many of the mountain ranges in the western US, how the houses and fields peter out at the edge of some gaping ravine or jagged ridge. All it takes, though, is a middle seat or a grey day to turn that sense of perspective inwards. It’s akin to a meditation retreat: nowhere to go, nothing to do (once I’ve given up reading the selection of overly ambitious tomes I’ve hauled along) but be here. In a sort of anti-meditation, at these times I throw notions of present-moment, embodied mindfulness to the four winds and give my memory and imagination free rein. Flights are good times for dreaming, remembering, consolidating, integrating. They offer enforced pauses, liminal times of neither here nor there, and in that sense they force us to slow down and take stock. 

A few transcontinental flights and about ten months ago, I spent most of my 5 or so airborne hours composing a sort of eulogy for my father. Though he’d died quite suddenly, he’d been sick for a decade or more with Alzheimer’s; my mother and I had lost him a long time ago. I flew home at short notice to be with my mother and, on the return trip from New York to Portland, the piece came pouring out of me almost fully formed. 

Now I sit here on the same flight, in an aisle seat at the back of the aircraft, and my thoughts turn to the two memorial services we’ve given for my father in the last two months. One was a family affair at the house my parents have long spent their June-to-August academic summers. The Vermont house was one of my father’s favorite places, but somewhere he went to retreat from distraction and concentrate on his music rather than to commune with family and friends. Episodically (and at times manically) social but at heart a loner, he’d never have come up with the two-day party and family reunion I planned and, with support and financial backing from my mother, executed. But he’d have appreciated the lamb roast, the ping-pong playing (we staged a tournament in his honor in the upstairs of the barn), the informality of the service, which took place under a pavilion on the lawn in a spot where we used to play badminton, where he used to smoke his pipe and blow smoke-filled bubbles, the piano playing of some of his favorite music performed by an old family friend. And he’d have been right at home during the carousing that followed. 

Amidst the day’s varied reminiscing, listening, eating, and playing, his spirit was present, hovering in the big white tent during the brooding chords of his Suave Mari Magno, as well as afterwards, boozily, in the ping pong arena. And the man that his friends, family and neighbors evoked in their eulogies? Funny--indeed, downright hilarious, even in his last, mostly silent years, when all he needed was a gesture to break up however momentarily the malaise in an institutional ward. Vivacious. Brilliant when it came to music, and intensely focused, dedicated, and single-minded. Uncompromising. Both intolerant and incapable of mediocrity and of pretense. Intolerant, too, especially when it came to his own family of origin, of their seeming inability to relate to him in his chosen field. His little sister, now over sixty herself, remembered with a chuckle how awed she’d been at George’s musical capacity when they were still teens--and how his response to her enquiries (“What are you working on?”) had always been brusquely dismissive: “Composing. Go ‘way!” 

The Vermont service blessed me with the sorts of anecdotes and recovered memories about my father that, as the only son of a dad lost too soon, I find myself hungry for. But more than this, it offered the opportunity to channel him, to bring him back for one long summer afternoon and on into the evening.

Six weeks and three cross-country flights later, a second service, this one put on by his former colleagues at the Columbia University Music Department. Instead of a white wedding tent by a haphazard woodpile on a sloping lawn, the venue was formal, citified: Columbia’s Italian Academy, a.k.a. “Casa Mussolini” (cue my father’s wickedly delighted laugh here), monumental and indeed rather fascist-leaning with its columns and lush red curtains. 

With a small handful of exceptions, the audience was different from that in Vermont: distinguished professors, former students of my father’s now risen in their own musical careers, colleagues too from my mother’s department in her university. No political agitator-slash-shepherd types, no apple-grafting, suspender-sporting opera buffs, no long-lost Edwards cousins over from Maine for the weekend. There was no lamb-roast, no ping pong tournament, and substantially less drinking. But the event brought him back in ways that the Vermont service didn’t. 

Two of his compositions performed, including a late, playful and texturally richly varied chamber piece. The audience was about the most sympathetic imaginable, and the emotional and intellectual impact of his writing was palpable amongst the hundred-twenty-odd people suited and seated, so many of them musical and intellectual peers of my father’s. The man this group evoked in their eulogies was recognizably the same as the one who had been brought back for us in Vermont, but the perspective was different--more institutional, certainly, while still retaining the earlier event’s strong sense of his human qualities. Indeed, the institutional angle revealed aspects of my father I’d never had occasional to consider. He was evidently a capable administrator and, as department chair, a fair-minded, selfless leader. At the reception, a woman he had hired over a decade ago told how my father, her new boss, had encouraged her to “follow [her] conscience” when faced with her union striking just as she was supposed to begin her new position, and assured her there would be a “job waiting for [her] when [she] returned.” Other speakers emphasized how much they respected not only his music but his writing about music, as collected in a book of essays published in 2008. As in Vermont, there were speakers who had known him only in the last five or so years of his life, after much of his decline had taken place, who nevertheless had rib-splitting anecdotes to share. Andy Delbanco, a Columbia colleague from another department who had known my father only in passing, spoke poignantly of the way he communicated with looks, facial expressions and the occasional gesture even after words had failed him. What moved me was how clearly Andy had been able to know my father even under these limited, limiting circumstances, and how much respect for him he’d developed. In some ways this was the bravest speech of the evening, because Andy didn’t shy away from touching on some of George’s more difficult qualities. His utter intolerance for nonsense, said Andy, sometime meant that he haw it where it wasn’t, dismissing people too quickly or harshly. His disinterest in meaningless banter and, if it came down to a choice between the two, his preference for awkwardness over fluff. A former student echoed this sentiment: brilliant in the classroom, George was not afraid to wait out ten and fifteen minutes of silence before he was satisfied that his students had no answer to the question he had posed. Silence, it seemed, was part of the method to his madness long before the madness overtook the method. 


Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Rome Diaries III: Deep Funk



After the diversions of the Napoli sojourn, George’s mother Connie visits him in Rome; evidently he was busy showing her around and had little energy to spare for journaling (or found all the touring rather tedious and had little to say about it). Shortly afterwards he took the train to Paris to visit his friend and future colleague Fred Lerdahl and take in some sights. There his notes are largely museum-oriented; in art and architecture, as in music, aesthetics were serious business for George. By late Spring the frequency and length of the entries pick up again. A sequence of brooding, self enquiries mark a period of depression that is to last for the better part of a couple of months. He first makes mention of the shift on May 7, 1974: 

Struck by similarity of present situation and (to a lesser degree) symptoms with the period of my nervous crisis at Princeton: period of my father’s death, social, sexual + musical isolation, copying, rainy cold weather, conducting, feeling physically weak ---. Hopefully I’m more capable of dealing with it now. 
K + Q [G’s piece Kreiz und Queer (sp?)] went worse than I thought, - perhaps half the piece went well, but everyone was lost at one time or another, and only the general idea came through - which was enough for many people. Very depressed immediately after, but cheered up today by knowing the players were disappointed, the audience generally content. A long day. 

We get more insight into the nature of the “situation” on June 12th:

Period of intermittent angst, depression, broken by social events (Lee’s), concerts (Dachow’s group), people (Barbara Kolb, Olins, Classico Barbara), new places (little piazza behind Piazza Navona, finding Dackow concert), and small spurts of work on what appears to be a quintet. [margin note, added later: Exchange Misere]. The ingredients are familiar - dissatisfaction about my work -- can’t seem to find any new pitch relations, everything I try to write comes back to what I’ve done before; lack of really close friends, isolation from my friends in the States; feeling that I’m musically too isolated here, through lack of initiative, in part; sexual frustration, which continually makes me ripe for relationships with people I don’t want to be involved with; anxiety for my future both artistically and personally -- haven’t I settled rather too comfortably into my fuddy-duddy role as Neo somethingorother? If I don’t write “great” (?) music - am timid, conventional -- then what professional rewards (internal) will there be, also given that I’m largely denied the external rewards that I might get through pushiness, back-scratching, etc.? ... Obviously my music needs to escape my control, as it has every time I’ve done anything decent - and that requires hard work, but also a sense of adventure, neither of which I’m up for right now. 

There are rays of light in this mostly dark period, giving his emotional life a sort of chiaroscuro effect. In a more upbeat, if not manic mode in late June, he writes:

Finished quasi diary-letter to J. Hoffman - how impossible to try to describe daily life here! Who would believe it? Yet my pessimism is less than that of the English-language press -- I just can’t see violence + revolutionary thought here as anything but a fringe activity given the “Italian temperament.” If I were Italian (not only contra-factual but inconceivable) I would almost certainly be a revolutionary -- but I’m a fairly bizarre foreigner.

This flash of wit and apparent self-confidence, however, is followed closely by 

...Acute anxiety suddenly Thurs A.M. while in library looking at Journal of music theory Schenker bibliography - earlier had gotten official notice from Donald Harris of extension of leave of absence. Suggestive connections. Echoes thru next few days, in which I’m “serving time.” Much less severe than at Princeton, but an obvious relationship. No obvious solution; when I’m ready, work will go well, in the meantime the shit-work I have to do isn’t enough, people aren’t enough, recreation (tennis every day, chess w/ Laurie, poker at Millan-Liveseys) necessary but also not enough.  Have still found no better solution to these periods of non-existence than waiting them out. Part of the depression is all the things that didn’t happen: no word from Rudi, who was planning to be in Rome now, ditto from Fritz, who was supposed to call me for a Wed. meeting. Reception Thurs. w. summer school kids -- very naive, probably think we are monstrous snobs. The one Paesa Sera which came is full of the postal scandals - tons of first class mail sold by the post office for paper - only a symptom of the postal crisis, but at least it’s nice to know that someone is concerned about it.  Last lesson with Signorina Bolla, whose fate at the academy (forced retirement) is very sad. Sat. begin reading an Italian medieval history book -- if I’m not going to read anything worthwhile, it might as well be in Italian. 

A few days later, he gets his head above water enough to put things in perspective, writing on SUnday June 30th:

...Too bad these periods of nothingness keep coming back, but I perhaps can learn something from them--what function do they serve?

The end of the dark spell is in sight. By the end of the weekend, his spirits are up:

Very pleasant trip to Frascati, etc. with the Olins, Liveseys, Frank, Charles Hope, Bill Hood, and Ann (?)...notice how important it is who you travel with! Got to convert Jean-Michel to a more frivolous attitude--one might well ask “why do I so easily take on the coloration of those I’m with?”--but perhaps my minimum requirements are that 1) I be able to eat and drink well, 2) that my chess-type intellect be stimulated by verbal games with outgoing + intellectual people. Or substitute for #2 that there be a spirit of improvisation (not so far #1!).

The question about “taking on the coloration” of those he’s with goes unanswered, seemingly. But the train of thought that follows it is interesting in its own right. This is the first written evidence that his earlier indifference to good food (remember Ann’s “he lived off bourbon, cigarettes and instant coffee”) has shifted and his tastes matured--“being able to eat and drink well” is now a non-negotiable requirement. This development was a permanent one; he was eventually to return from Italy with a nose for wine and the command of a small arsenal of pasta dishes (pesto, carbonara). He still liked bourbon and cigarettes (until his eventual switch to pipe-smoking), but they were now snacks and dessert, not his daily bread. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

One Foot in the Palm Oil






Given the capital-letter Weirdness of the last few weeks, it’s almost overwhelmingly tempting to start out in a Hunter Thompson-esque vein, to strew my prose liberally with ‘king hell bastards’ and ‘by god, what are these goddam animals?’ But I diverge from Thompsonian territory both in the nature of the Weird and in my relation to it. This has been a strange trip, but a non substance-induced one. And while I’m open, increasingly, to these experiences that 99% of Americans (though well under 50% of people worldwide, I’d venture to guess) would call crazy, I’m not singlemindedly seeking them out like some aviator-clad sports journalist with half a salt shaker of cocaine and a powerful urge for red salmon. No, the weirdest thing recently has been how normal it all seems, and how inevitable. 
After a build-up like that I’d deliver some pretty strange stuff. Here it, then, naked, for skeptical minds to balk at: In the last two weeks I have taken part in a spontaneous ‘extraction,’ what one might call a minor exorcism, and I have hung out with a succession of Brazilian spirits and West African demi-gods in a trailer-park shrine outside Oregon City. I have attended a group session with a Nepali Jhankri (shaman) and felt the spirits move in me. With regard to the extraction, it involved moxabustion and garlic and creepy-crawly phantasmagoric critters. With regard to the succession of spirits, one of them, an Indian named Mestre Malunguinho, bathed me in herbal waters and blew cigar smoke into my ears.  Pai Joaquim, a former slave on a Bahian cane plantation, had a heart-to-heart with my friend and gave him some very specific and personal advice. Together they teased, cajoled, told stories, made minor prophecies. Then Esu--another order of being altogether, self-described right hand man of the almighty and tester of men’s hearts, he who guards crossroads and beginnings--waxed poetic about the nature of reality while drinking Seagram’s from the bottle. Just another evening in Oregon City. 
In all fairness, my own mind was not entirely free of skepticism when I drove out for the session I had scheduled after finding a flyer in a curio shop the week before. “Cowry shell divination,” the flyer read, and recognizing this for a Yoruba-based practice, I took one. I had taken a class in the Yoruba religion and its new world manifestations (Santeria, Candomble, Xango, etc.) back in college, then had my interest re-kindled by reading Michael Gruber’s Tropic of Night, a mystery set in Miami featuring a Cuban detective and his encounters with the light and dark sides of his religious heritage. Compared to your average twenty-eight year old white male, I was open-minded towards things like spirit-possession, even moreso towards divination, thanks to my evolving relationship with coin flipping and the I Ching. And there was that matter of the extraction the week before, when during what I thought would be a run-of-the-mill Chinese medicine treatment I lit a cone of moxa atop of a slice of garlic my friend’s navel and set off a battle with what she experienced as a slimy green tentacled creature and I as a horde of centipedes and scorpions. Neither of us saw them per se, but we both experienced them. It’s hard to describe, but it was real for both of us. From a Chinese medicine perspective, it was unquestionably Gu at its goriest; somehow I seemed to know what to do and kept burning more moxa and pulling out writhing yuck from the Spleen channel on her ankles. Inspired by my teacher Heiner Fruehauf’s description of ancient qi gong practices to eliminate Gu, I hurled some thunderbolts into her abdomen for good measure. After a few minutes things calmed down, and just as were catching our breath she swore she felt the critters leave through her bedroom window. 
So it was with the door to Weird thoroughly ajar that I called the number on the flyer I had stumbled upon. It advertised a “divine link between heaven and earth,” and not only cowry shell divination but also “private consultation and cleansing with the guides of the Jurema Preta.” I was, as I say, about as open-minded by this point as a mostly left-brained, chess-playing math minor can be--which is pretty open. But still there is a part of the mind that stays aloof, rationalizes, tries to explain away whatever doesn’t fit neatly into the ontological framework our culture dictates. 
This faculty, what I’ll call the critical mind, was not entirely dormant when I arrived with my friend Alex and met in person the Iyanifa and Iyalorisa (diviner and spirit medium) I’d spoken to on the phone, this perfectly normal-sounding American woman whose bright and bubbly voice belied her etched face and graying hair (at the end of the evening, she looked ten years younger). The critical mind stayed mostly on the sidelines once we were inside her shrine.  A shack just big enough for a bench, an altar and a wood stove, I felt immediately comfortable there, and everything that happened seemed quite natural. But still the critical mind has its say, a needling voice that cuts in unasked for. When Esu announced his arrival with a bang and the Iya’s body language and speech patterns changed almost beyond recognition to become that of a mischievous older man with one squinting eye and a throaty laugh, the critical mind says ah, a good actor. When Esu eventually made way for Mestre Malunguinho, the proud and taciturn Indian who bathed and purified me, the critical mind is forced to amend its assessment: a very good actor. But to account for the insight, the humor, the wisdom, and the cosmic perspective of the succession of spirits that entertained and challenged us over the course of three hours and more, the critical mind is hard pressed. Not only an incredible actor, it is forced to admit, but a highly intuitive person, brave and compassionate, yet not without ferocity, able to ask the right questions, root out the hard truths, poke at tender spots, call bullshit and then make you laugh about it. It is not only easier to speak of Esu and Pai Joaquim than “Iya when she was Esu and Pai Joaquim.” More than this, it is actually easier to take the performance at face value than to attribute the combination of talents and what (according to the crude and critical mind’s assessment) would have to be duplicity to dear Iya. The exhilarated, bright face that emerged after Esu made his final exit of the evening was one uninterested in duplicity and probably incapable of it. 
For her part, Iya (meaning ‘mother’) takes credit only for the years of work she put in cultivating herself so as to channel such “highly-evolved” spirits exclusively; she writes that it is the spirits themselves that are “greatly loved and revered in Brazil for their warmth, character, integrity and powers.”  In conversation with her after the session, she  emphasized how integral the Orisas and spirits have been to her life and path, how much she has sacrificed to cultivate her connection with them for the good of others. 
Ultimately I’m not even sure how much difference there is between possession and divine inspiration. Maybe great actors are doing nothing other than channeling spirits--maybe that’s what all great artists are doing. When we express our greatest talents, whatever they are, when we get into that artistic or athletic zone, perhaps we are allowing ourselves to merge with a helping spirit. Scientific explanations aren’t contrary to these ways of thinking; a diagnosis like ‘multiple personality disorder’ is only another way of describing someone who is prone to possession by multiple, not necessarily beneficent spirits. 
At a certain point the other night, I left the critical mind behind and chose to go along for the ride. I chose to believe, knowing that it’s both more interesting that way and more helpful, more therapeutic. Or maybe I was the one being chosen. Esu squinted at me through a cloud of cigar smoke and told me I have one foot in the palm oil, meaning I’d be back there with him before long.  And there’s no contradicting him
Now it’s as if, having opened a door within myself and accepted the insistent reality of parallel planes of existence and (anathema to my former materialist mind) consciousness without body, I find many doors that had been shut to me now open. What’s behind them turns out not to be so mysterious after all: I have learned that shamans are not so uncommon in our country, at least in Portland, and that their techniques are not as esoteric as they seem.  The reality of the spirit world is universally accepted across traditional cultures, and means of accessing it and having influence there are remarkably similar. Bhola Banstola, a Nepali shaman whom I met just last night (they’re coming out of the woodwork!), said as much. He advised the room not to try and emulate the particular Nepali practices he was sharing but to go inward, to find one’s own way of accessing our birthright of connection to the spiritual world. He reminded us that the spirits, harmonious ones and otherwise, are around us all the time, whether we acknowledge them or not. And, as two others have done in the span of less than two weeks, he recognized some potential for this kind of spirit work in me and encouraged me to explore it, reminding me that it of course goes hand-in-hand with my chosen path of herbalism. It made perfect sense.  And it felt completely normal.