Saturday, July 16, 2005

Confession of a Thawing Heart

Every once in a while, the past unexpectedly intrudes into the present. People or feelings I thought were long ago set aside knock on the door of my consciousness and demand admittance. With no warning, I am immersed in memories I didn't know I possessed, feelings I thought had resolved themselves, and regrets I had accepted as final. Strange how a gap of seven years can suddenly drop away, bringing past and present together in a single moment.

I was once a very different man. I had chosen – or was chosen by – the archetype of the radical poet as the blueprint for my life. I sought Rimbaud's complete disordering of the senses as a means to mystic, poetic revelation. I sought to transcend reason to achieve higher insights, but more often, I simply succeeded in plunging into the murky depths of my unconscious mind.

My life at that time was creative, passionate, and built around repressing a spectrum of pain and fear I could hardly acknowledge, let alone face. The poetry I published betrayed the image I projected, revealing a deeply tormented psyche and soul.

Most of all, my life at that time was defined by my love of a young woman who was as creative and troubled as was I. The alchemy of our bond conjured great magic, yet we hurt each other in profound ways. Our connection was deeper than anything we had ever known, and we lacked the tools and the strength to contain such intensity in a healthy way.

That relationship ended in pain and a sense of insurmountable loss. For more than two years, I descended into the blackest Dark Night of the Soul I had ever known. Everything I knew about myself began to come unraveled until I felt as though I had been stripped of any identity I could recognize. The best poetry of my life came from that darkness. I embraced the pain and liminality of loss, even as I felt it might destroy me.

Then one morning I got out of bed and I knew it was over. I stopped drinking, and with the wine went the poetry. I began to eat healthy foods instead of doughnuts and pizza. I bought a weight set and started to work out. I imposed structure and discipline on my body, and at the same time, I gave up the life I had known. As I grew stronger and healthier, I became increasingly divorced from my feelings (not that I ever was the most emotional person in the room). My heart had frozen, and now I buried it away, afraid to allow that pain any presence in my life.

A couple of years later, I rediscovered love with the woman who is still my partner. Yet I have not been able to fully thaw the fragile muscle encased in my ribs. Rather than spontaneous, I am disciplined. Rather than creative, I am diligent. Rather than passionate, I am intense. There is energy, but it lacks the full depth and soulfulness I once knew.

It's not all bad, however. I learned how to have a healthy relationship through having had such an unhealthy one in my youth. In giving up the life of the imagination and the soul, I have increased my intellectual skills and breadth of knowledge. What I lack in inspiration, I make up for in education. My health has never been better. And there is an emptiness in my life that led me into therapy as a way to explore a path back into the grief I have hidden away.

To borrow some terms from Nietzsche, I gave up the path of Dionysos and embraced the path of Apollo. I put away a life of the senses and pursued a life of the mind. I rejected a horizontal orientation in the world and have sought a vertical orientation in Spirit.

Strange choice, that. The more I learn of Spirit, the more it reveals itself in all things. I've known that intellectually for years, but it's different to feel its truth, to sense it in my body. It is not possible to embrace Spirit and reject the world – they are one in the same. I am learning to feel what I know, and little by little I am rediscovering the tender heart I long ago put away.


So, one day a letter comes in the mail and seven years fall away. I remember her voice, her laugh, and all the ways she hurt me. Yet, it is only one small voice in my head recounting all the horrors of our years together. I can step away from the pain and hear its message without identifying with it. There is a distance that only time can provide.

She wants to be friends. I feel drawn to contact her, to know who she has become. I hope that she is happy and healthy in her life as a married woman. I wonder if she, like me, carries scars from the years we spent together. I want to apologize for how I was unable to be anything other than who I was – for being lost and confused, for being young.

But the more I think about contacting her, the more I realize it isn't her I want to reconnect with – it's me. I want to connect with the best parts of who I was when I was with her. I want to know the poet and mystic too sensitive to own his gifts, too insecure to trust his vision, too young to know he would grow stronger with age.

I want to reach back through the years and tell him it will be okay – he will survive. I have survived. Seven years feels like a lifetime and an instant.

I miss her some days, but it isn't the painful absence I knew when she first was gone. It's more like compassion – a gentle sympathy for how young and lost we were in those days. In the time since her note arrived, I have discovered a soft spot in my heart where the young woman I once loved will always remain. She is no longer that innocent and wild girl, and I am no longer the young man I was then.

Seven years have passed since I last saw her, and it does feel like a lifetime. Whoever we were to each other, we are no more. My time with her feels no more real to me than last night's dream, yet I know she walks and ages and sent me a note.

This is my reply. I wish her peace and happiness – a long and joyful life. If she should ever read these words, she will know I have not forgotten the magic, that I once promised we will meet again in some other life, that I look forward to it.

On Escaping the World

In response to a previous post on the nature of attachment, John made the following comment:

In many ways, Christianity and Buddhism share the same beliefs when it comes to the diagnosis of our problems - that we are too attached to the things of this transient world instead of being attached to the things that are eternal. The differences (and they are severe) come when we start to talk of the solution to our problem. Buddhism teaches that we need to sever our connections to the things of this world, to become detached, in order to escape suffering. Christianity teaches that the answer to suffering is to form new attachments to the God who created this world, and that these new attachments will enable us to withstand suffering, grow from it and make the world a better place. That is, Christianity teaches us not to escape from the world but to transform it.

I have been thinking about this issue since first reading John's comments, and although I had a clear sense of how Buddhism is not about escaping from the world, I wasn't clear about how to express that truth. While reading the current issue of Buddhadharma, I came across the following quote from Tenzin Palmo, the British nun best known for having meditated in a Himalayan cave for twelve years.

". . . we don't want to go to heaven. We want to be reborn so that we can keep going and realize the dharma so as to benefit other beings endlessly. It's a very different thing. We're not collecting merit scores for ourselves. We're making merit so that we can be reborn in a situation where we can really live to benefit others, and ourselves, again and again and again, more and more every time. We are in a position to deepen our understanding to be of genuine benefit to other beings."

What she is describing here is known as the bodhisattva vow, a commitment that is central to the Mahayana branch of Buddhism. Essentially, one promises to devote one's life to becoming enlightened -- to attaining non-dual consciousness through relinquishing attachments to this world, or to knowing Spirit as source and destination of all things -- so that one may be reborn again and again to help others become enlightened. One commits to continuous rebirth until all sentient beings are enlightened.

There is nothing in Mahayana Buddhism that encourages escape from the world. Rather, one is encouraged to transcend the attachments of this world so that one may devote one's lives to helping others do the same.

Buddhism does not reject the world out of fear (as do fundamentalist versions of other traditions), but rather in recognition that the manifest world is an illusion hiding the true face of Spirit. And even in being clear that all is illusion, Buddhism is also clear that ultimate truth is to be found in the dharma, but that we live as physical beings in a world that is relative. Knowing this, we work with what we have in this reality. We practice bodhicitta (loving-kindness) and attempt to develop the tender heart of the Shambala warrior.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Andrew Cohen: "The Rude Boy of Enlightenment"

Beliefnet has posted an interview with controversial "enlightenment guru" Andrew Cohen. Cohen is the founder of What Is Enlightenment? a magazine dedicated to covering the cutting edge of enlightenment practice, research, and theory. In recent years, Cohen has aligned himself and his magazine with Ken Wilber (founder of Integral Institute) and Don Beck (Spiral Dynamics creator). He now espouses an approach he calls Evolutionary Enlightenment. But just how enlightened is Andrew Cohen? He often comes across in his magazine as a pompous, ego-ridden power seeker. Even his mother has problems with her son and former guru.

Q: For those who aren't familiar with your work, how would you describe yourself?

A: I'm a spiritual teacher, first and foremost. I teach what I call "evolutionary enlightenment." Traditionally, in the pre-modern or ancient notion of enlightenment, the spiritual experience or revelation called enlightenment was considered to be the end of the path. Someone who was supposedly an enlightened human being was no longer developing. They had reached some kind of final end point.

I'm saying that kind of awakening really is the beginning of awakening to the fact that we're part of a developmental process. We're part of the evolutionary process where human beings, I believe, ultimately, will function at the level of consciousness and recognize that we are that very process that started 14 billion years ago with the Big Bang. That we are that very evolutionary process that has the capacity to become conscious of itself.

The traditional notion of enlightenment was the attainment of a state of consciousness that freed us from the world, it freed us from the time process. In the traditional notion of enlightenment one was trying to experience nirvana or achieve a nirvanic state or enter into a nirvanic realm which would free one from the experience of embodiment. It would free from one from being embedded in the world process.

Read the rest of the interview for yourself here.