Saturday, April 27, 2013

From a Deeper Place

Dhamma Torana is a meditation Centre a couple of hours north of Toronto, where the Buddhist technique of Vipassana is taught and practiced. I’m heading there tomorrow for a weeklong work period, during which volunteers like myself will work at whatever maintenance, building or landscaping projects are scheduled. It’s a time for service. Any “old student” is eligible to participate, an old student being anyone who has completed a 10-day course during which the practice is taught. But for me, the work period is an opportunity to practice meditation in a deeper and more focused way than I have in the ten years since my training.

I took my course here in Ontario, just a few months before the centre opened, at a rented camping facility a ways east of the current centre. There have been many opportunities to visit the centre, but this will be my first, and it coincides with the 10 year anniversary of its opening. In commemoration, there will be a 1-day course in the middle of the work period – an all-day meditation. On each of the other days, there will be three 1-hour sits, and the general guideline of silence and the avoidance of distractions will be followed throughout.

Vipassana has been a very helpful practice for me, despite the fact that I practice it so laxly. Students are encouraged to do two 1-hour sits per day. I manage a single 20-40 minute sit perhaps four days a week, on average. And there’ve been long stretches during the ten years when I didn’t meditate at all. But the benefit, when I do practice, are clear.
I’m more grounded when I’m meditating. I feel more rooted, more solidly seated within myself. I notice that I’m less agitated, distracted or put off by events and people and problems. And, I’m less inside my head. That last is a big one for me. A theme of my entire adulthood has been freeing myself from living too much in my head.

And I’ve lately noticed this freeing happening in a new way. I find myself making decisions that seem to form not entirely in my mind, but in some deeper, less conscious place. So often, my decisions are a result of long deliberation and the mental weighing of factors and tangents and possible outcomes. But occasionally, a decision simply wells up, from some inner source, and its rightness is evident, even before it has generated any change.
Deciding on this trip to Dhamma Torana is actually a case in point. Had I given it much thought, there was plenty to argue against it. Vacation time is limited, and we have so many things we might do with it. There is family to visit, including aging parents. There is Cloud, our new country retreat to see to and make improvements on. And so many other possibilities. But the notion of giving service time to the meditation centre, and deepening my own practice in the process, had been rising quietly in my spirit, and when it emerged as a clear, directed thought, my thinking about it felt like a formality. I knew it was the thing to do.

It’s a wonderful feeling when decisions come from this place. It probably comes across as anti-intellectual, and I guess it is. But there is other intelligence than Mind intelligence, isn’t there? I guess this could be called anything from being guided by conscience, to inspired, to having a gut feeling, to being spoken to or guided by God. (And I bet we could generate some really contentious arguments by debating the point) Maybe the key thing is simply to be open to such inner direction. I hope to be.
So as of tomorrow, I’ll be at the Centre, doing service work and deepening my meditation practice. I’m looking forward to it.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Three Years In

Three years ago today, I set up Obsidian Blooms and posted for the first time.

That initial post became the descriptive passage, “What It’s About” that adorns the home screen when you visit this site. I had hopes that maintaining the blog would spur me to being more regular and productive in my writing. I tend to be a slow writer, uncertain and second-guessing about my choices. I wanted to develop a quicker process, from idea to composition to dissemination. And I hoped to become looser and freer about my choice of subjects, to get over my wariness of airing personal issues and opinions. And I hoped to generate an exchange of opinion with readers about issues and concerns that matter to me.

I’ve accomplished all of these objectives to some extent. I’ve posted 156 pieces, which works out to exactly one essay per week, many of which are fairly substantial. But my intention was to do at least half again as much. I’ve written about some very personal – and occasionally controversial – subjects. But I’ve been fairly general and indirect about religious/spiritual matters, and I’ve hardly touched at all on love and sex, which are as interesting and important to me as anything else I’ve written about.

Occasionally, I’ve gotten a response to something that has led to an exchange and even a deepening of thought about an issue, but that’s come far less often than I’d supposed, and often, when I’ve most expected it, there’s been no response at all.

So, like every other meaningful activity in my life, blogging has been a journey, bringing satisfaction and disappointment. It provides cause for deep gratitude, and the road stretches ahead, with objectives, but no clearly discernable end. Which is alright with me. It’s all been a blessing. And it’s nourished my life in many ways.

Maybe the biggest challenge is how blogging has affected the other writing I do. I had been a committed journal keeper for more than thirty years when I started blogging, and that journaling has slowed to a mere trickle. I’m more surprised at that falling off than disappointed. My journaling had fallen into a rut, and the break from it feels rejuvenating. But I’d expected and hoped that blogging would somehow invigorate my creative writing, which has only happened indirectly. My blog essays require the organizing around an idea that other writing requires, but it’s otherwise a very different pursuit.

One of the most wonderful aspects of blogging has been its reach. Blogging gives me a way to share with friends, colleagues, acquaintances and strangers, with whom I’d otherwise have much less connection. I may get less commentary on-site than I’d hoped for, but I get quite a bit of unexpected reaction and acknowledgment from people as we interact in other ways – in person, by phone and email. And while initially, Obsidian Blooms drew barely a pageview per day, it now average 15-20 per day. It’s a modest readership, but rewarding to know that some out there find value in sharing my observations. And I confess to getting a kick from the fact that readers have linked in from more than fifty countries.

So this post is an acknowledgement of the three years that have gone into this blog and of you readers who have made it so worthwhile. I hope you’ll stick with me and keep reading!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Culture Drunk

I could blame it all on Wisia. There was a small gathering on my birthday awhile ago, and I insisted on no gifts. But Wisia brought one, anyway. I chastised her later, for not honoring my wishes, which she acknowledged. But she finished by reminding me that for her own birthday gathering, which is tomorrow, her wish is for “cards, gifts, flowers and champagne”. Serves me right, I guess. And so ironically, the one person who disregarded my own resistance to gifting, compelled me to go gift-hunting.

So, this culture binge I got started on is all Wisia’s fault. It’s her that got me shopping at BMV, a favorite bookstore that carries new, used and remainder volumes, and always stocks lots of wonderful art books. I began browsing for a gift and found an amazing volume, In Plain View, documenting the varied career of Dan Witz, a phenomenal artist who specializes in a kind of surrealist, illusionary street art, but who also excels in various forms of painting, sculpting and montage. It didn’t strike me as just the thing for Wisia, but I got a copy for Ponczka.

A couple of hours later, I drifted into Cosmos Records, just off Queen West, intending to pass a little time while waiting for a client to show up. Half an hour later, I emerged from there with five albums:

You’re Under Arrest, a missing album in my Miles Davis collection. I’d avoided it upon its original issue in ’85, turned off by the fashion model, bad boy pretensions of the cover art: Miles, all in black, sporting a fedora and carrying what looks like a toy machine gun. It’s the album that drew attention because it features covers of tunes by Michael Jackson and Cindy Lauper, something frowned upon by the snoberatti of the day. I was intrigued by the comments Miles made of it in his autobiography, and wanted to finally give it a serious listen – something that all of Davis’s many recordings deserve.

Horace Silver’s Silver ‘n Brass was next. I already have his Silver ‘n Voices, and Silver ‘n Percussion, and neither disappoints, though they don’t equal his masterful, small combo recordings of earlier years. Silver seems to bring his melodic touch to everything, and after listening to a few choruses on the record shop’s system, it was a keeper.

By now I was getting that old, good feeling, open to sampling all the little known and unknown offerings in the shop, and I was in danger of emptying my wallet.

I came across Dreams Come True, by bassist Buster Williams. I don’t recall ever seeing this before, but I’ve loved Buster’s work as a sideman, particularly backing Norman Connors on some brilliant recordings, most notably, his Love from the Sun, which I’ve featured a few times on Jazz Gumbo. Stellar sidemen often make disastrous turns as leads, but I like to try them out. So why not see what Buster put out, with a pretty good supporting cast?

Then I came across a Jimmy Smith classic, Got My Mojo Workin’, and didn’t even hesitate. By this point, I was trying to will myself out of the shop, but I was on automatic by then. But what a great buy! Classic Jimmy Smith is the essence of funky, jazz groove. It evokes memories of when I was a kid, of goateed men on street corners, talking trash and sipping from cans of beer in paper bags.

The final lp was a step out of the jazz idiom. Buddy Miles, Them Changes. A great many of my 1,500 or so albums are singletons – by artists from whom I’ve never purchased a second album. If I really liked the first album, this represents a failing: What did they do next? What did they do before? But it often comes down to the depth of the pocket at any particular time, and making choices. Anyway, I love the first and only other Buddy Miles album in my possession, A Message to the People. And I know and like the title tune of this one. And what a great cover photo, of shaggy-headed Buddy, sitting casually at his multi-colorful drug kit: check me out, ya’ll!

Hours of music ahead. But still no gift for the birthday gal. So I was back to BMV again the next day, this time with a specific book in mind. Throughout my life, my most common gifts to others have been copies of the books and albums that I love, and I decided to go with a much loved old stand-by, as suitable for anyone on any occasion as sunlight or fresh air.

I found a near mint, used copy of Gibran’s The Prophet, for only $6.99, wouldyabelieve. It’s a ’77 reprint (the 98th, according to the copyright page), identical in format, though smaller, to the edition I received decades ago. I was passing through Detroit in my early twenties, headed west toward some dream, but equally fleeing my eastern discontents. And my uncle Earl took his copy from a shelf in his office, and on the title page he inscribed “for the angry times”. It has served as a balm ever since.

It’s possibly the wisest book I know. So many phrases that pierce to the core:

“Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”

“But if in your fear you would seek only love’s peace and love’s pleasure, then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love’s threshing-floor, into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter, and weep, but not all of your tears.”

“The soul walks not upon a line, neither does it grow like a reed. The soul unfolds itself, like a lotus of countless petals.”

So, I had my gift for Wisia. But I didn’t make it out of BMV before stumbling across another jewel of a book: Street Knowledge by King Adz. It’s a cornucopia of street culture, overflowing with color, style and all manner of interesting facts and suggestions related to the outer and inner edges of art.

And I still wasn’t out of the store. I’ve been listening to an audiotape of Eckart Tolle’s The Power of Now, a brilliant work about the path to enlightenment. In one section, Tolle remarks on how monks will sometimes sneak up on an acolyte and smack him with a staff, as a lesson on remaining ever alert and attentive. It brought to mind a favorite scene from a favorite film, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. In it, the head samurai is seeking others to join his mission, and he tests them by inviting them through a doorway, behind which an accomplish stands, waiting to club the unsuspecting visitor. The results are varied and amusing, and I won’t give anything away. See the film! One of the greatest of all time, at once beautiful, philosophical, dynamic and poetic. Needless to say, I noticed the dvd bin in BMV, and didn’t they just happen to have a copy.

Books! Albums! Now a Film!
I’m completely filled up. I’m drunk now from this binge of cultural consumption. But feeling no pain. Stimulated, titillated, ideas charged, my own imagination unleashed by it all; feeling nourished by the flood of positive stimulus, engaged and enlivened by the confluence, cross-pollination, the re-mixing of all this inspired output of human minds and souls.

But enough! Must stop! Go home!
So I’m in the car, escaping downtown. And I pass by Roy Thompson Hall, and I see the streams of folk entering the venue. What’s up, I wonder. Who’s performing? My darting eyes find the marquee, listing the acts set to appear over coming weeks. I scan through it backward, making my way toward tonight’s event.... Esperanza Spalding! OMG! She’s amazing! Why didn’t I know?

But no...I don’t park and rush to buy a ticket. And I don’t even feel bad about it. I actually caught her act just last summer. Wonderful. Her lush, fluid, fusionistic style. The soprano voice, the lithe frame cradling the deeply vibrating, upright bass. A beautiful interplay of rhythm and melody and lyric and generous intent, the partnership with an audience that all art is, the revelation of the beating heart, the collective WE, bound together in creative inspiration, fused at the root, reaching toward some invisible summit, entwined, even when we don’t know it, in this shared, magical, human spirit.

Which is love, culture...drunk.          

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Tears and Streams

I once went through a period of years without ever crying. It got to the point where it concerned me a little. It’s not that I have any kind of fetish about crying. I don’t look for opportunities to cry or anything like that. But, I do find crying to be one of life’s high emotional experiences, and I generally rate such experiences as good.

Crying is so cathartic. When I cry it gets at something that can’t otherwise be got at. An itch gets scratched that can’t be scratched any other way. It shakes stuff loose that otherwise stays stuck. And so I started to be a little concerned when, over a period of years, any number of very opportune occasions came and went, and nary a tear was shed. That is, I had moments when all the necessary ingredients for crying were in place: some emotional impact had been absorbed, the flood of feeling that seems always to auger the release of tears swept over, the necessary threshold of tension had been reached, and the setting and company was condusive. The tears just didn’t come. Never having been resistant or self-conscious or gender-opposed to crying (I’ll admit even to a little pride, that even in the era before sensitivity became manly, I was capable of shedding the studly tear or two) I began to wonder if something in my soul had gotten clogged up. Maybe I was in need of some emotional drano.

But I was spared any extraordinary measures. I began to cry in my sleep one night, and I came out of some emotion heavy, but totally forgotten dream, with tears streaming down the side of my face, and with my heart open in that particular way that only tears can bring about. So these were tears that, despite being tinged by whatever sadness had descended in the night, also bore qualities of joy, and of relief. They were the kind of tears that somehow confirm that all is right with the world.

I cried here at Cloud a couple of weeks ago. Unexpectedly, while recounting to a friend the story of a long ago acquaintance, and his grief at losing his wife of many years, and the peculiar and touching way in which this withdrawn and silent man expressed his grief. It was one of those unexpected cries that seems to come from nowhere, then is gone.

I had another like that, a couple of years ago. Sitting in the apartment of an old friend in New York: I was introduced by her to a fellow artist who was also a poet, and who’d brought along a book of his poems for us to see. And, not being particularly interested – I wanted to visit, not read – I flipped open the small volume randomly, and suddenly my heart was wrenched open by the words wafting up from the page. I could do nothing about it – I was in tears, and deeply moved. I cannot remember the poem now. But the situation caused me to remember him.

But none of that’s what triggered this post. It’s not why I’m writing this.
What draws out these thoughts and memories is the experience of Cloud this week.

Water is everywhere. The spring thaw is on, and water is coursing in rivulets and streams, collecting in puddles and in the proverbial babbling brooks. It's spreading, rushing, sparkling and dancing across these acres, everywhere we turn. We hear it and smell it, it is present in the mud that squooshes under every footstep. And it rains down in tiny droplets that a month ago were the latest snows. It’s beautiful. And it seems as spontaneous and fresh and as freeing as those unexpected tears.