Tag Archives: duality

September, Discipline

Light and dark swirl.

Take refuge, my sweetness. I am here. I love you. I am full of tenderness for your pain. I will gladly cup your weak and panting doubt, and gaze upon it while it rests. I will be your strength and your voice. I will protect you. I will love you, no matter what. It is okay to let go. It is okay to let go of the brutalizing narrative that beats you hard enough for you to feel your edges. You’re choosing a merciless boundary because you fear that if you don’t, you will disappear entirely.

You will never disappear, because I am your center. I am your center and your light. I am the life in your breath, and the seam your feet and the floor conspire to make a thousand times a day, to remind you that it is safe, and you belong here. Safety is steady, gentle work, stitched together again and again. I am the empty edges, by which you feel at home in your body, and open in your heart.

Please, take refuge in me. I am the love of discipline, for which you are searching. Consider trying a different test. Consider what might happen if you are wrong. Rest, and ask your question. Stay, and listen.

The love that drives us to serve is the fruit of surrender. I love you. I surrender to you every day. I am here. My sweetness, please, take refuge in me. Let me hold you for a while. Let me touch you lightly and whisper to you. Let me show you the strength of stillness, and what love grows there. Let me show you that it is yours.

Immaculate Capitulation

partially burned clover

I could linger here for hours, sinking deeper into the
busy stillness, that unwinds when I bed down
in the sweet grasses, and watch the world work.

Beetles, blossoms, birdsong.

The swollen heat of high summer has come.
It tugs, and thrums and meters out the breath of life.
I consider the sticky, happy, bleed
of pressing sunshine.

The Earth’s gentle turning yields generosity
from a relentless sun.
This critical act of immaculate capitulation
allows us to rest in darkness and gather strength to
create again.

I am feeling to find these threads,
sensitizing myself to touch the cords with confidence,
and know which action is needed.
I am thinking about how to honor the lineage of this
relationship, of knowing when enough has come. Of
knowing what to turn away from, and what to turn into.

I trust the material I am made from, yet know so little
of its working. This wisdom murmurs late at night as
the narrator of my dreams, and in the daylight hum of
the cicada.

Our distance from our native knowledge of how to be,
is perhaps the greatest consequence of our
advancement. I have seen nothing else in nature that
extrapolates its expectations beyond the boundaries of
sensation.

The Immaculate Deaths of Trees

The grass bends easily in the wind. The great oak stands unmoved. A strong wind can uproot the oak, but no wind, however strong, can uproot the grass that bends flat before it.

-Chin-Ning Chu, Thick Face, Black Heart

Fallen oak tree
I am walking on the estate again. I reach the boundary gate at the river, and turn to look at the water. To my amazement, the stone mansion I have been glimpsing, straining to see from the road a quarter mile down river, is directly in front of me across the bank. It is only now that the leaves have died and fallen away, that I can see what’s been nearer than near, all along. Only now, that they have honored their totality of purpose, and completely released, is the sought object revealed to be already present. It is as if God has sighed tenderly and said, Clear enough, baby? I begin to cry, and I pray that I may die all my deaths with the grace and dignity of a leaf.

I am walking on the estate again. It’s been very windy and very few leaves remain above, but there are many below. It’s cold and bright, and I look at the mansion for a long time. I turn, and walk the other direction. In front of me is a fallen giant. I massive tree has shattered at its base and stretches across the lawn, all the way to the edge of the brook. Its size and its majesty are awe inspiring – and in its death, accessible for the first time. Dying changes the perspective of those who have only ever experienced us as living. Huge swaths of earth are torn up from the impact of the fall. Broken branches rest a foot into the ground.

There is an odd smell in the air. I weave under and around the limbs, touching the bark, marveling at the life of this creature. I decide to bring the boys back here later, so they might see something this rare for themselves – a body that’s been in the sky for hundreds of years, laid now at our feet. I look up at a branch still clutching leaves. It is an oak. They are always among the last to let go, holding their curling, russet leaves well past the first snow. I think about the cheerful, sugary maples, naked for weeks now. They helicopter down their soft seeds in the height of summer. A party. A ticker tape parade. Not like acorns at all, who hold their dense energy easily, stoically, all winter long. I feel a chilly sadness for the oak, for the vulnerability of staunchness.

I am walking on the estate again. The oak has been cleared away, the splintered stump, neatly sawed across the top. Around the edges, the tree rings are clearly marked – a bending topography of time, etched in creams and browns. Towards the middle, the cut surface is ragged and white. I touch the outside rings; the wood is very firm. I touch the inner wood; it is soft and pulpy. I pick up a piece of wood left behind, with the grain clearly showing. It is very hard and heavy. I pick up a pale, ungrained piece. It is light, it crumbles easily between my fingers. This tree died from the inside out. It is how most of us die, but strangely, we rarely think of it that way. We think of it as something that happens to us, rather than something that emerges from within us. There are tiny pine seedlings at the base of the once-here tree. I wonder, do they know the fortune that’s befallen them? Do they feel the light that has always been there, but is newly born to them?

I am walking on the estate again. The oak stump comes into view, a tidy headstone in memorial to itself. Everything about the way trees die and live, is immaculate.

Rainlight, Candlelight

I am walking on the estate again. It is windy and rainy. Everything is saturated. Black bark is blacker. Pale green lichen is brighter. Stones on the path glisten, winking their suddenly lustrous tones into the gray space. Tawny needles below the pines throb on the hillside, slowly casting off the half life of sun light.

It is a dreary, we say. It is dismal. But in the damp, in the grey rainlight, everything is softer and more vivid. It is like looking at the whole world by candlelight. Everything becomes more beautiful, more romantic, more clearly itself, by what’s absent. Beauty shines in the dark, because it is at home there.

October Bouquet

Bouquet of burdock, grass, berries and yellow flowers
It is unusual, as a mammal, to experience coolness from the inside out, I say to Linda as she takes the needles out.

Afterwards, I go for a walk. The sun is out. The moon is out. The sun is loud and the moon is quiet, but both are bright. It is cool and very crisp. Something small inside me says, yes, as I cross the road towards the old Governor’s estate.

I walk past the small pond, and pause as I come up towards the large garden plot, plowed and planted with a cover crop for winter. The grass off the path ahead is rustling in the piercing sunlight. I stand and watch the organic shimmer. It is beautifully choreographed – the short grasses flicker in staccato quarter-turns, the long grasses bend sideways, low, and back in slow, sweeping bobs. Movement and stillness ripple through the space.

I am about to set off again, when I notice burdock to my left. I have been thinking about burdock, and decide to take a stem, then two, so I can photograph them later. I walk with the dry, shaggy, husk of a bouquet clasped in my hand, a march of ephemeral conquest. I am carrying it like a bright-eyed suitor, and have the same feeling in my heart. I am struck by how silly this must look.

Suddenly I see there are yellow flowers all across the garden. They are in such contrast to the burdock, I immediately want to put them together. To my left, there are several types of branch berries, and what I think are choke cherries. I take some berries and leave the cherries. I add a stalk, then two, of creamy brown, heavily seeded grass. Now it feels like a proper bouquet. Now it is telling a richer story, of death, and life, and the abundance in between. I walk past a beautiful evergreen with red blossoms that hang like little lantern shades around bright red berries. These flowers are lovely, I want to add them, but I think it will clutter the narrative, so I resist.

I walk along the stream, instead of the drive. A break in the grass invites a pause. Cords of thick pond weed bow to the current, which currently appears quite still. I look for fish or turtles in the clear water, but see none. I wonder if the turtles have gone into the mud for the winter. Oh! there are two on the bank, sitting right together. But they are only rocks, that have camouflaged themselves as turtles.

I follow the stream back up to the big pond where it starts in a slip over the dam. I have never seen the pond from this angle. A lone Canada Goose drifts along, oddly separate from the gaggle I hear over the hill. A large bird glides over the water, in a slow downward arc. It flies too elegantly for a goose, it is too slender to be a hawk or a vulture. It is a heron. It’s flying towards me and I hope it will land where I can watch it. It loops back to the other side and settles in a tree, immediately blending into and extending the branch on which it has landed. If I didn’t know where it was, I would only see a thick gray branch disguising itself as a heron. But then the heron shakes its tail, resettles its wings, and gives the tree away.

The Handicap of Authority

I have recently been thinking a lot about the state of “don’t know” – directly in my practice, but also throughout my days. I did a great home retreat session with Shinzen Young on this topic, in which I had two opposite experiences around the state of don’t know (which I define as being conscious of not knowing something, either cognitively or somatically). I experienced “don’t know” both as doubt, which was critical, fearful, contracted and emotionally distressing, and as curiosity, which was questioning, excited, open and emotionally pleasurable. Same state, two completely different experiences. It was like watching the minds of a paralyzed neurotic and a creative genius. Same mind.

I also realized, when I noted the pleasure of a breeze on my face, how the action of “knowing” something closes off the possibility for additional experience. We give an experience a label, and identity, and package it up for easier consumption, but this act of simplifying and sense-making creates much bigger wakes of don’t know for everything else that is omitted from our direct experience. We tune into a thin channel of reality so that we are not deafened by the cacophony, but lost are the myriad other tones and voices. Only now, I am starting to hear the echos. Knowing and not knowing are the same then, it seems. They are the inverted form of the other, or maybe, a triggering cycle, back into the other.

So the more we “know” the less direct experience we let into our lives, the less open we become to possibility and alternative explanations and solutions. I see this all the time in business, and much of what makes the Lean movement so appealing is its attempt to align with the reality that is occurring, not the one that has been planned. But much of American business culture is still organized around the planning and hierarchy structures that worked well for the industrial era, and are failing in an age of technology and integration.

Complex, dynamic systems like software, or any modern product manufactured in a globalized economy, do not lend themselves to predictability or control. But our business structures still organize as if they do. Worse, the institutionalized expectations that this is not just possible, but ideal, are still deeply entrenched. The higher up in an organization that you sit, the greater is your responsibility for knowing what is happening, how it is going to turn out, and why. The more pressure there is to know, the greater the tendency resist, often actively thwart, any portion of reality that does not match one’s selected reality. The more committed we become to what we know, the worse our distress when it diverges from the objective reality that occurs. No wonder board room politics are so vicious, and so many start-ups fail. What is a leader to do, when trapped in the handicap of their own authority?

Filtering – knowing – making wise choices and purposeful rejections, are important qualities in a good leader, and essential for running a successful business. Expertise and mastery are essential components for creating value and authority seems like a near enemy. The controlling aspect of authority is preferred over, and sometimes even confused with, skill and knowledge.

Mastery, expertise, knowledge, are qualities that all seem real to me, that I believe are recognizable and valuable. But I’m unclear about their relationship to knowing, and not knowing. Rich, direct experience is very hard – for me, it requires slowing down and concentrating. A lot. There is a tipping point at which the broad-spectrum consumption of reality comes at the expense of day-to-day functioning. Having a well developed skill or body of knowledge requires knowing, but it seems backwards that being exceptional would come from a closed position. Is it the difference between practiced repetition, vs. assumed reality or extrapolated models?

With practice in the physical world, in a task, or in study, the repetition leads to a build-up of knowledge – a residue persists from knowing that has been tested and proven many times over, with multiple variations. The residue of practice is what leads to genuine knowledge, but the indirect or lightly tested knowing of something gets us in to trouble. It has no weight, is has does not carry the fingerprints of a previously vetted reality. Conversely, our patterns of experience lead us to “know what’s going to happen”, all the time, and contribute accordingly. While I suppose karma is a certain kind of expertise, it’s not skill. So what is the difference between patterns in our thoughts and behaviors, and the repetition that leads to wise skill? I think consciousness and intention, but this is very difficult to quantify, currently, which makes it hard to track for ourselves, or champion more broadly, given that quantifiable knowledge is very fashionable, very preferable, in our culture.

Backyard Drama, Broken Homes, and Beginning Again

IMG_8799

Several weeks ago, Jack and I were drinking our morning drinking on the deck and listening. Jack is a fabulous ambient listener, and a good noter. I frequently complain that my kids don’t listen to me, but really, they listen just fine, and choose to behave differently than I’ve requested. I know this because they laugh at me while they’re not doing whatever I asked. Maybe, if instead of every time I said “You’re not listening to me!” I said, “You’re not doing what I want!” I would start to sound as ridiculous to myself as I probably do to them. An experiment, to try.

But on this particular morning, Jack and I are simpatico. We are listening to all the sounds and saying what they are: air conditioning unit (dragon), truck (truck), siren (fire truck), plane (plane), crickets (I don’t here crickets, oh yes, now I do. Crickets.), what’s that? (cicada), birds (birds). Lots of birds. In particular, a very upset robin.

What is that?
A robin. It sounds very angry. That’s how they sound when they’re upset. It’s probably mad about a predator. Maybe a cat.

A shrill yeep, and then the lower-toned stutter that sounds like skipping friction, like rubber soles on a high-gloss floor.

I look up at the sugar maple, to my right, where they have a nest. Nothing much is going on, although I can’t see the nest directly from the deck, only from below. Jack and I continue to talk, and listen, and talk. It’s not until he moves from his chair, that I understand what all the fuss is about. Through the railing, I see something small and brown in the lawn, moving just a little bit. A fledgling. I hear the robin to my left. It’s on my neighbor’s fence – it drops down to the lawn, fretting and clucking, flies off, then down by the baby, and back to the fence again.

What was a mildly unpleasant background noise is now a drama of the highest order. Has this bird left the nest too soon? Did it fall? It’s clear across the yard from the nest – how did it get all the way over there? Did it come from another nest? Is it supposed to happen this way? Seemingly not, given how upset the mother is. It’s so vulnerable, it will surely get eaten by a neighborhood cat. Perhaps we should go get it. Perhaps that is a terrible idea. What do I know about raising robins? As I play out the logistics of bug finding and feeding, I decide my loving care is unlikely to improve the chances of this little bird surviving. I wish the mother robin would stop making such a racket – it’s drawing a lot of attention. Wouldn’t quieting down be much more helpful to her offspring?

I am totally sucked in. I keep watching, sure that any second, I will see the slinking, long-haired end of this little one creep into the yard, or perhaps, just blaze from behind the flower garden. Instead, I see the mother bring the fledgling something to eat. This is good. It has not been abandoned, it’s being taken care of. I definitely do not need to rescue it. Now, if only the mother would just stop making so much noise.

We eat breakfast. We go inside. We get ready to go out for the day. I walk across the driveway to check if it’s there. It is. It’s moved a little, so it’s probably not injured. I don’t get too close. I’m worried I’ll leave a smell and the mother will stop feeding it. I remember being told this as a kid, that birds will abandon their young if they’re touched by humans. I have no idea if this is true, but I don’t want to get too close. I get the kids all packed in the car, and take one final look. Still there, still alive.

As I drive away, I know I will probably not know what happens to this robin. When I get home it is gone. I don’t see any feathers. Maybe it flew. Maybe it was carried off. I don’t know. Statistically, it probably died – only 25% of fledglings make it through the summer. Nature took its course, and it was a proper course, however it ended. But I can’t help myself – I hope that it spread its wings and flew.

A week or so later, I am in the back yard and I see the arresting blue of robin’s-egg-blue.

Look Colin. Look. It’s an egg from the nest. Look how beautiful it is.
Golden, tacky yolk rests in the cone of the egg. It’s beautiful. I feel sad.
Oh. And here is part of the nest.
A thick, curved shelf of tawny, white-pine needles. Oh no.
Something must have gotten into the nest.
I look up. Unwound plastic bobs in the breeze. Ragged edges press into twigs and bits, like a seamstress lipping a mouthful of pins.
Oh, look. Here are more shells. Something got into the nest.
What did?
I don’t know. Maybe a cat, or a raccoon.

What kind of animal wrecks a nest for eggs? I’m not sure.

We scoop up the chunk of needles, and the shells, and place them in the shade of some hosta leaves along the fence.

Last week, Jack and I were on the deck again. It rained hard overnight. I am sitting without a cushion, on the rubbery, white plastic slats of the chair. Jack is sitting on a towel on the cushion. The air is very still. I am watching the leaves on the oak trees at the back of the yard not move at all. Sunlight shines at just the right angle to reveal a large spider web between two leafless branch tips, about a foot apart. It looks like the branches are not healthy, but they’ve made perfect loom for weaving a web.

The leaves rustle. A robin has landed in the oak on the left. Another one lands, above it. They fly off again. And back. This time, I think the female has a stick in her mouth. It’s hard to see. They are very busy on a morning where most everything else is quietly absorbing. Back again, this time with an unmistakable bundle of grass in her beak. She disappears behind the leaves, tiny bits of scrap float down to the lawn. I am suddenly awestruck by the complexity of this task, and capability of this little engineer. Finding and assembling every fiber of the structure, one mouthful at a time. Shaping it with a beak and a wing. Choosing the right blend of materials for structural integrity. Reinforcing it with worm castings (just finding them seems impossible). Lining it with soft grass for warmth and comfort. She is common, and exquisitely skilled. I am humbled by this little mother, with fire in her breast and knowing in her bones. It is time. I know how. I will do each part, not because I was told, not because I think so, but because it is the way. It is the way of my existence.

Gentle Teeth

gentle-teeth

I just became aware of these when I laid a spoon on a book to hold it open while I my hands were otherwise occupied with Jonah. It kept slipping off and the book would snap shut. So I turned the spoon over, rim-side against the paper, and it held perfectly. I just needed to reverse smoothness into friction. Both were right there for me to choose, to notice, and apply for the benefit of my current context. And I thought: yeah, tigers have gentle teeth to carry their young, I bet there are all kinds of gentle teeth. I’m quite taken with this notion of a right-sized bite; a speck of ferocious love; vicious strength, dialed back for sweet holding. I think it’s beautiful. I’m going to look for more of them.