Monthly Archives: December 2004

shaman by night

Thanks for hanging in there with me this last year or two. I’ve been delinquent about birthdays and have let the birthday project slide a bit, but it’s in no way a reflection of my feelings toward loved ones and, well, birthdays. I’ve been internally focused these past few years, particularly since June of 2003, and I don’t relate to everyone in the same way. This is a great thing, truly, as I’m not as gripey and adversarial as I was, but I’m still in an inward phase and until I come out of it, I fear your judgment. I am not moving head on into projects, jobs, degrees, plans, elaborate money making schemes or anything else our culture so applauds. I am moving into myself, figuring out the niggly bits that irk me and hold me back. Internal focus is not depressed focus. Worry not. I’m happier and more grounded than I’ve ever been.

No, I’ll not keep in this direction forever. It doesn’t ultimately suit my nature, which leans slightly toward external exploration and curiosity. Yet I’ve discovered that much of my wanderlust was a misguided affair. I sought safety without, from cultures where I found more comfort and acceptance than from my own fast food, Prozac nation. Cultures where in not belonging, I belonged. As a foreigner, not belonging was my place. It was a role that suited me.

But that role had limits and its comforts were, ironically, superficial. Finally I accepted that itinerancy was an attempt to avoid myself and my fears, which tend more toward commitments than dragging octogenarians about Iran. It was easy to pretend I was fearless working and traveling as I did. I also accomplished this less dramatically by delving variously into education, career, family life—any platform to keep busy and avoid my personal truths. At times it seems our entire society is designed with this in mind. Our careers, our lifestyles, our manners of education and communication are all about moving fast and keeping busy instead of connecting or understanding. Keep busy so we can buy stuff and impress because if we slowed and looked at the state of things, we might have to change radically. And that is terrifying. Much better the devil we know.

But the truth doesn’t go away. Ignored, mine festered within mind and body until its poison drew me down and demanded I answer to it. Until I can, or until I understand it at the least, more such plans of photography projects, work abroad, anthropology PhDs or law school will not take flight successfully. Obviously, I’ve got some questions about how and where I fit into this society of ours. Born to a family of black sheep, this should not surprise.

karmic conundrum

A Hindu woman taught me her brand of meditation recently. It was quite more religious than my usual, secular ‘back to the breath’ sort of practice, but I kept my ears open as there’s always something to learn.

She explained that there is no fear, no sadness, no misery—only love. Love is all there truly is. If you define love as an energy, I can agree, and look on all else as a result of the way we view things, judge things and the mental pickles we work ourselves into mostly over nothing.

Um-hum. She asked why I might be sad, grievous, and fearful. I explained perhaps why she might sense this in me and she looked at me, eyebrows raised, in a look I can’t help but call judgment. “Fifteen years is a long time to hold onto something, to be sad, don’t you think?”

I did not explain that I have not been consciously sad all this time, that this sadness has only come up of late because I’ve finally given it the space to present itself. Yes, yes it’s been hovering below for years and maybe some sensed that, but I did not, nor did most. Most sensed, I think, anger and bitterness, but not so much grief.

“Don’t you think it’s time to let go?” she admonished.

“Why do you think I’m here?” I wondered, but answered, “Yes, but how?”

So began my lesson on death. “There is no death” she began. This made sense, as it followed lesson one: there is only love. She talked about energy and where our energy (taken, skeptics, to be the energy of movement and metabolism in the body) goes when we die, as energy cannot be destroyed, a la E=mc2. My teacher was trained as a biochemist and liked to make scientific references, particularly to quantum mechanics. This much comforted my rational mind, and was well and good, as I’m hugely inclined to agree. However this intellectual spin does not lessen or heal the pain and sadness I’ve forced down and denied over the years. In fact, my emotional and intellectual selves are so separate as to be off speaking terms altogether. Throwing me the logical “there is no death” argument only strengthens what I think I know and bats back the sadness, forcing it down to irrationality. I already feel my emotions are inappropriate—this is why they still dwell in me, decades old and unresolved. The LET IT GO line doesn’t work as I’d made believe that I had.

She next told a story about her childhood. She was very close to her grandfather, who had introduced her to the most important works of Hindu philosophy, though she wasn’t yet able to understand them. When she was nine, he became ill and she sat with him. One day he explained to her that souls need to change clothes sometimes, when bodies become too worn out, and he soon needed to change clothes. He then told her to go home, shower, eat and come back. When she returned he had died in her absence.

There. See how peaceful death can be? Just let go. Everyone just lets go. No doubt she went home to her famous father and loving mother and everyone let go together. See? There is no death. But what if, I wanted to ask, Grandpa hadn’t prepared you? And your parents weren’t able to comfort one another, and you? Would you, could you, just let go? This we cannot know, of course, because it wasn’t her lot.

Her situation and mine come about via karma, or actions. We deserve whatever we get, we can learn from wherever we are. In fact our own unique challenges (torments, broken hearts, illnesses, etc) are precisely what we must face full on in order to grow. Couched in these terms, to some extent I agree. But when the teacher relayed that some people come to her and complain about pain left from sexual abuse suffered as a child, she reproves them. They chose their parents. Such is karma.

Agreement comes less readily. How can she, a wealthy, upper class woman blessed with a nurturing family begin to fathom the psychological ramifications of such abuse? I certainly can’t. I readily see without guidance that my father’s death was a turning point in my life that allowed me new freedom, and the lessons of learning to let go and retain enough faith and trust to open my heart again loom large before me are indeed my personal lessons (karmically chosen or not). To pass this sort of torment-as-blessing evaluation off on another person’s pain seems almost irresponsible to me.

But perhaps I didn’t truly understand my first lesson: there is only love. Comprehending it and feeling it are two quite different things, and I’m beginning to sense my inability to bridge this gap is the root of my karmic conundrum. What I think does not approve of what I feel, and vice verse. Guess which wins out? The thoughts the thoughts the thoughts. This is why meditation is so attractive and impossible to me. Those snags of time in the midst of sitting when all goes soft and the breath takes over, warm and nurturing, like being held.

This wasn’t one of my lessons though. My teacher led me back to vedic philosophy, the yamas and niyamas. “Meditation is not about sitting and breathing. It is about life. It is about a way of life.” Yes, it is. We were back on track, in agreement again. She gave me another prescription: don’t be violent, lie, steal, covet or be excessive. These are called the yamas, in yogic philosophy. This seems easy enough, other than #4, which I’m already on, dizzied by the covetous thoughts that whir through my brain when a friend finds a flash apartment, wins a grant or climbs a tree. Since my teacher seemed so stern, I started watching the lies, which are hard to avoid—the small-white-social-I’d-love-to-see-you-this-weekend-got-other-plans-yes-I-read-that-book-you-gifted-me sort of lies. She was correct in lecturing that one small lie requires more and more lies to cover up the first until you can’t quite remember where you started from. The book? Yeah, the book.

This is all familiar. I don’t need to be a Hindu to get this. I can be a Taoist, Jew, Muslim, or Zoroastrian and play along. All our religions have these codes. But let’s get back to love.

What made the love lesson so difficult to process was that I didn’t feel her love. I felt judgment and impatience. She explained these ideas to me very slowly and carefully, because if I couldn’t let go of pain half a life old, certainly these concepts would be slow to sink in. And yes, they are, not because the concepts escape me but because the concepts must be internalized and woven into life, which takes some time. A life of it.

This could speak to my walls and limitations rather than her lack of warmth toward me. Walls do not attract love, I promise you that. Hurt stays out, and but everything good as well. Judgments are walls that protect the heart as well as the ego, and as you watch the thoughts that spin around your head, you begin to see that. Then slowly they can fall away, letting the softness up from underneath. My judgments are only barely beginning to ease and as the walls are lowered, my sadness comes up. My walls that look like confidence—this is a cultural as well as personal malady —come down to reveal sadness. And finally, I think I can handle it. I feel I can handle it. I handle it.

So, teacher, please do not tell me, “Do not be sad.” It’s finally time.