Spirited through time, riven we make our meek adjustments, deferring to the feeding frenzy when communal touch and slow dinners are what we really crave. Clacking skeletons of capitalist spectacle drown out our warm mammalian needs, dance on our graves blot out the sun.
“For if leisure and security were enjoyed by all alike, the great mass of human beings who are normally stupefied by poverty would become literate and would learn to think for themselves; and when once they had done this, they would sooner or later realise that the privileged minority had no function, and they would sweep it away. In the long run, a hierarchical society was only possible on a basis of poverty and ignorance.”
“Trust in what you love, continue to do it, and it will take you where you need to go.” – Natalie Goldberg
In the mirror of my own experience I can say that writing is a spiritual practice, similar to and perhaps as profound as the spiritual practice of Buddhism. When I started writing in earnest back in 2016, it all began when I wanted to try writing a poem. It turned out pretty good – the poem wasn’t half bad, and I found a surprising pleasure and joy in the act of putting words together in a meaningful way. I had no idea at the time that within two years, I would discover two profound truths: the relative truth of the joy to be found in creating unique poems and stories, and then the greater truth of writing is a Way of liberation.
The form of Buddhism that I studied and practiced for around five years is Vajrayana Buddhism. In that path, you take everything that you experience– good, bad, neutral – and receive it into your practice. All these bits are tools for you to pull yourself out of a dull, painful life of bouncing blindly from one conditioned reaction to another. Using attention and awareness, you gradually realize the innate freedom that you already possess. In this way, the pain of being a trapped being is liberated, and joy and freedom become more the rule than the exception in daily life.
Beginning a committed study of the buddha way is celebrated in the act of taking Refuge. I took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha on a stormy day in September of 2005. The late afternoon we gathered, the sky threatened rain and winds began to blow as we took our seats in the shrine room. I looked out the window, and immediately became nervous – though it was only around 3 or 4 pm, the sky had become pitch black and the elm branches whipped and swayed furiously.
Even though I felt apprehensive, at the same time I was strangely amused, a bit exhilarated even. I thought – intrepid spiritual sojourner Self has more than a bit of a diva inside her! It seemed this dark and dramatic staging was a very physical presence of what Refuge is – taking safe direction, trusting in the spiritual process unfolding from the darkness and drama of an unenlightened life.
I turned and looked at the Rinpoche who was leading the ceremony and would give the Refuge. He sat totally unconcerned with the incredibly wild weather scene unfolding just to his right, outside the window glass. The juxtaposition was eerie. Just outside, hell-black sky and lightning backdrop to wind thrashed trees and shrubs whipping houses and cars. While inside we perched on our cushions in an intimate, colorful reality – sitting cross-legged and packed in hipbone to hipbone with the 25 other “refugees” on the floor, the bright reds and oranges of the shrine room, the impassive Rinpoche giving the reading instruction on what refuge means, and his skilled translator sitting to his left. Trusting in the stable presence of the ceremony, I set aside the wiggy fear of the storm and let all unfold as it would. While I no longer travel this spiritual practice, the experience of persevering despite turbulence has been a memory that I can rely on to see me through most challenging times. I remember to depend on it, but sometimes my attention wanders. What remains is the knowing of experience, and that is unshakable for me.
In May of 2016, I decided to write a poem for the first time in my adult life. I had just come out of the stormiest, most depressed April that I had ever known. Many situations in my life at that time fell to shit at the same moment – business deals fell through, four friendships I counted on as stable were ripped away, and I was dumped via text message by a current lover. All throughout that month, the yammering of a darker voice, urging me to take action, became more insistent. For all my 50-plus years of experience, this voice was beginning to make sense to me as I went through the motions of my so-called life.
I got through that April somehow, and after nearly a month, I decided to attend one of the local writing events – a book release performance – and had a wonderful time. I had a sense that this poetry writing was something I might try my hand at. Even if I sucked as a writer, it wouldn’t hurt to put some words down. Maybe even perform them? That might be fun.
One afternoon a couple of days after the reading, I sat down at my dining room table, in front of my computer, and began to listen. Words came to me and I wrote them down. I continued to listen, and more words came, and then more. Some hours flew by and when I was done –
Not too shabby, I thought.
In fact, damn good, in my opinion.
In FACT, I LIKE this poetry stuff. I think I will do it some more.
So, I continued to write, trusting in the excitement I felt in this work of setting words to paper or keyboard. I continued to do this more and more regularly. The more I paid attention, the more I realized everywhere I looked, everything was unfolding like a beautiful and strange terrain. What is this world that I’m even finding myself in? Each glance, color – how to describe it? My ears were bathed in the most soothingly intense and intimate silver tones of leaves moving, of wind, of traffic in the streets.
I was falling in love, I realize now. In fact, I got to the point where I named my notebook Bella – Beauty. On the very same page as her name I wrote that I was falling for her. Every bird song, every piece of grit beneath the soles of my shoes, every scent (Burning or sweet? Pungent or delicate?) and all the shades of grey and the texture of the buildings on the road as I walk by. I wanted to describe these to Bella, and she, the most Faithful and Clever of Lovers, would immediately mirror them back to me.
Pay attention, pay attention, and then pay attention some more. Take it in, take it in, take it in closely, look at all this before you! Man, what does this apple *really taste like, anyway? Pretty soon, I’m realizing that all parts of me – inside, outside, relationships, impulses, consciousness – these are all gathered into my writing, just as on the cushion in the shrine room, all events are taken up into the path of meditation.
The work of attention is the work of remaining awake to every geography, aware of each sensory input, and attentive to ongoing spiritual ebb and flow. Writing turned, for me, from a desire to write a poem about birds outside my window into a source of refuge. It’s become a Way to get free from the petty revolving thoughts of pity, of self-aggrandizement, of longing, of anger and loss. Setting my mind to the work of how to describe this world “in here” and this world “out there” has become a shield against confusion, and a constant joy. It’s also a wild, bucking horse that is becoming more responsive to me daily.
And this is how writing saved my life, and how I discovered, all dark voices to the contrary, that I really loved what I was. I discovered this treasure cave of worlds, both outside of myself and the internal, purely fantasy images and thoughts of my own mind, opening to me in ways that I’m still trying to fathom. I may never find the end to the cave or to these mysteries, and that fills me with hopeful peace and a calm excitement about the future. Writing will take me where I need to go.
“…One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Do not be ashamed of the fear, the worry, the anxiety. Do not feel that your heartbreak over what is happening is misplaced, or wrong, or out of line. These promptings are voices from your inner compass, the gyro that keeps you stable, the inalienable center that is YOU. These feelings of injustice and outrage against the seeming shamelessness of those who engage in the fearsome practice of eating from the table of our sisters and brothers, of our children. These inner promptings are invaluable, and the seed of power. They will carry you far, if you will have courage in your thoughts about how to respond.
I would encourage you to lean in, see what the most insistent fear is for you right now. Listen to this turmoil in your heart – not to be overwhelmed or swept away, but to lean into the most bright spaces of fire. Look calmly, take time to listen, then experiment with the idea of putting yourself at it’s service. Give some time to hear and understand the message. Find your unique way to answer the prompting at the center of your fear.
Find a bucket, a basket for this and begin to carry it with you, A gesture, a word, a poem. A walk around the block. Use any way that occurs to you spontaneously to begin to move with it. You are finding your personal way to answer the call that is hammering away within.
Attend to the places where it seems your fear becomes lessened, where you feel it brighten and the flame steadies in peace. Those are the forks in the road, the little outcroppings where you can set up camp. Unexpected treasure caves may be revealed, for you to discover work to be done to liberate this energy into purpose. When you do, a gesture of power will come to you. This gesture will begin the process of moving your energy to the best direction for you to do the most good.
Don’t get hung up – there is time, although not too much of it to be sure, so begin moving. By leaning into what the energy is telling you, and moving with it, you become a container for the force that will serve to free us all. The energies are shaking you, perhaps because you have the exact convergence of powers and loves to respond. It’ll be bumpy at first. But you will gain precision and finesse as you move along with it. I would love to hear what you are doing to help keep this world, as Keats would say, “a vale of soul making.”
Tonight was the 10th Anniversary of the series, and I gotta say – we all did it up right tonight. What a blast! Energy levels were high, the poetry and stories were fresh and edgy and fun. We had a *great time.
All the performers read their own work, and then each took one of the stanzas of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
“I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning,
How you settled your head athwart my hips
and gently turn’d over upon me,
And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and
plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart…”
I took my place at the mic tonight, and I had verse 19 from Whitman’s “Song.”
This is the meal equally set, this the meat for natural hunger,
It is for the wicked just the same as the righteous, I make appointments with all,
I will not have a single person slighted or left away,
The kept-woman, sponger, thief, are hereby invited,
The heavy-lipp’d slave is invited, the venerealee is invited;
There shall be no difference between them and the rest.
This is the press of a bashful hand, this the float and odor of hair,
This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning,
This the far-off depth and height reflecting my own face,
This the thoughtful merge of myself, and the outlet again.
Do you guess I have some intricate purpose?
Well I have, for the Fourth-month showers have, and the mica on the side of a rock has.
Do you take it I would astonish?
Does the daylight astonish? does the early redstart twittering through the woods?
Do I astonish more than they?
This hour I tell things in confidence,
I might not tell everybody, but I will tell you.
But first I read a piece that I wrote in Wendy Brown-Baez’s most recent poetry workshop. Wendy’s a really good teacher – I’ve learned so much from her. So, I’ll share here the unexpurgated version of the poem I read tonight at the celebration.
To the Community of Poets
Praise to the community of poets!
The writers, toiling away,
creating pictures in words,
crafted from the weavings and leavings of the Muse.
They are like lyrical ants,
antennae pressing into each letter,
every word a grain of wheat
gathered and arranged
and offered up.
Plopping ladles of alphabet soup into each bowl,
the reader tastes,
and like unfolding clouds of incense,
wonder rises like steam from the plate.
Praise to the community of poets!
On social media, in meeting rooms –
a gathering storm of wordsmiths
sits around restaurant tables,
sprawls on couches and pillows and chairs,
writing and laughter rising and falling,
and tears in turn.
Praise to the community of poets!
Praise to them
and these hearths of faces and keyboards too,
crackling with villanelles,
and sonnets rising up like charmed snakes from the midst of them.
Shoulder to shoulder they seek for the perfect word
to hymn of love gained and lost,
of new cars skimming along streets,
of rusty cars left behind,
of weevils teeming in bags of spilled grain
of mountains thundering with trees,
of children birthed, grown and gone.
Praise to the community of poets!
Praise to the giddy company of poets
Who learnt the trick of breaking into the places where fire is stored.
Like wild monks, they guzzle the wine there,
and then bring some back to spike the punch
with words that slip through the barricades
around the souls of the sleepers,
bringing hearts to heal
and beat and throb with the perfection of the world
as it is –
Bent over, hobbling,
each step a new kind of pain
dark and bone-deep,
like the scraping metal of a spoon in an empty bowl,
like the crush of the crowd
stumbling over the homeless body in the street.
This world will steal the purple joy from my heart, if I let it.
But then I feel the sun warm on my face.
This will break the spell,
and the bad dream recedes.
The landscape rolling,
a healing flowing
known and unknown –
St. Croix, Mississippi,
and the swimming pool of my childhood home.
Despair blown away with delight,
remembering the way I felt,
eager and free
wind blowing in my hair
eyes streaming in sun and happiness,
gazing over the cottonwoods
laid out in endless sighing green.
Spent some time today listening to a really interesting Guardian podcast on Black History.
Paul Robeson was one of my father’s greatest heroes. He represented my dad’s ideal of well-rounded excellence – athlete, scholar, and activist. Australian writer Jeff Sparrow has a new biography out on Robeson’s life.
Ishmael Reed is an author who’s been on my radar for awhile, but I have not yet read any of his writing. Penguin Classics has just released his 1973 release Mumbo Jumbo.
From the Avant Garde Magazine, Letters to the Editor, November 1969.
I’ve recently returned after two years in Vietnam, where I was a G.I. helping to tear the country down. I am determined to return, as a civilian, to help build the country up. I know a fair amount about building construction (and, alas, destruction), and I would welcome assistance, if only in the form of encouragement, from any of your readers. – Wayne L. Seth, 15609 S. Chadron, Gardena, Calif.”