Watching the Breath: listening to the light

Day 93: Yes, I know there are other people still locked down. Steven Colbert was last week. Possibly, my region can be opened up this week, but the last I heard cases of Covid-19 were still going up, especially in my suburb. Although, honestly, it won’t make much difference to me, given my advanced age and the nearly 20% chance that it will be fatal if I catch it.

For the first three weeks, I didn’t leave my apartment, but then grocery delivery stopped working. You could order a large number of things and sit up until 12 a.m. to get a delivery slot, four nights in a row and never get one. Conclusion – I had had too few children, the two I had were wanderers and I would have to scuttle out before daylight and buy my own.

So for three months, I have been staring out my high windows at the sky, my feet touching earth once a week to hunt and gather. The good news is it’s now daylight at 6:50 a.m.

I know everyone has had different stresses and pressures. I’m grateful I wasn’t shut up with the man I married nor our children who needed the challenge of strenuous exercise to keep from killing each other. We were both teachers, and good at it, except with our own offspring, who tended to run screaming from the room when their father tried to teach them algebra.

So there’s that to be grateful for.

I also know there are many, many single people who have got to the end of their rope, like me, around 9 p.m. when they haven’t heard another voice all day. Except of course on television. I am proud of the fact that so far I have had only one real panic attack caused by a sudden vision of burning cities and gunfire. We had already had some of that, but this was worse and involved Trump’s rally in Tulsa. I called Georgia my sister, who was puzzled because I couldn’t speak. Finally and with no sociological reference, I managed, “I can’t breathe.” It was a doozy combining all the symptoms of suffocation, heart attack, food poisoning and seizure-like spasms.

Georgia said in a kindly, scolding voice, “You know we all signed up for this. Every last one of us. We made an agreement to take on these roles – victim or killer or Covid patient. We came to do these things, to learn a certain lesson. Anyway, it’s all already happened.”

Now you may not agree with Georgia’s view of destiny, which we undertake pre-incarnation. I’m not altogether sure that I do. At the time,  it seemed a wise idea, although I nearly drew the line at it had “already happened”.

Half an hour later I had calmed down.

Next day I checked in with my daughter in California and she seconded everything Georgia had said, despite the fact that the two of them have barely spoken for forty years. I still want to nail them down about the simultaneity of time. Certain times I absolutely do not want to ever encounter again.

Such as this one.

Thank goodness for household chores that ground me, thank you for Face Time and video calling and even telephones, thank you for television – for  news channels and Netflix and Acorn, thank you for e-books and library loans by internet, thank you for socially distanced chats in Georgia’s backyard and drive-by birthday parties and thank you for the strange experience of being a monk in a mountain cave.

I had read a lot about these chaps in my study of Buddhism and Taoism. I knew that they depended on routine. That seemed an odd way to organize nothing, but I leapt to the task. One of my first daily tasks is to put my hair in order. It was last cut in late January. I wear it short, very short, usually. Now it is half way down my long neck and curling up in an awkward reverse pageboy. This morning I found myself saying, “Fuzzy-wuzzy was a bear..”

Both Georgia and my daughter are fond of reminding me to breathe. I, of course, always respond in my robot voice, “What is breathe?” “Watch your breath,” my daughter says. “And listen”.

I can see about 50 miles of horizon out my floor-to-ceiling windows. The view’s horizon is the shore of Lake Ontario. The photo above does show a line of darker blue that is the water. In the east, I can see the C.N. Tower in downtown Toronto and in the west, I can see the height of the Niagara Escarpment, the only height in this flat land. I particularly love Rattlesnake Point there and longed to go there for the long weeks of shut-in.

I used to live in a ground floor apartment in a triplex. There were bushes and flowers, trees and birds at my level. Now my view is of doll house roofs and tree tops. And sky. I have taken to noticing the change in light throughout the day. At the moment the ground is all green kodachrome while the sky is light blue fading to white over the lake. I have watched a line-squall suddenly tear through with floods of rain and tree-bending winds. I have watched its darkness leave just as suddenly to lash the city. I have remembered the names of clouds from my sailing days and the weather they presaged.

I have sat in absolute stillness listening to the quiet.

At dawn this morning, I dreamed of a man who loved me when I was young, a tweedy grad student who smoked a pipe and wrote me love poetry. I liked him well enough, and spent time with my roommate in the house he lived in with other grad students. It was good to get way from residence food and rules. We laughed and pretended to be intellectuals. After I left university, he called me to invite me to a cousin’s wedding Friday night two days hence. He had tracked me down at Blake’s home. I said I was sorry I couldn’t go. He said, “I suppose you have something important on.” He could be snarky. “Well, yes,” I said reluctantly. “I’m getting married.” I may have named my son after him, although I spelled it differently and reasoned it was my grandmother’s maiden name. He died young, in his forties, of a brain tumour. I didn’t learn that until years later, by which time I was divorced.

“I thought you knew,” my ex-roommate said when she told me. “We thought you were the woman in the veil who came late to the funeral and sat in the back row.”

Last night, he turned up in my dream. We were both still young. He was working in a hospital in Toulon, he said. That was odd, considering he had studied physics.Then he enfolded me in an enormous hug. His body was more substantial than it had ever been and he held me tightly for a long time. So thank you, Brian, after all these months I needed that human touch.

 

 

 

Motherless six-year-old looks at the World in 2020

The 13th century poet, Rumi asked, “Who looks out with my eyes?” Lately, it has been my 6-year-old self.

When I was 6, a bad thing happened and I nearly died. I was hurt bad physically, but much more deeply in my heart and my soul. For a while, I was drifting away until the loving care of my Aunt Mae pulled me back and healed me up with nothing more than a few herbs, a tin bath tub and raspberry pie.

By the time, I returned home, I had no memory of what had happened. Mae had taught me to put the pain away in the inner-most doll of a series of Russian dolls. And under her care, I learned to read the whole of the first Dick and Jane book and add numbers all the way to 10. I had missed almost the entire month of September, but I was way ahead of the other kids. On the December report card, I came first.

I didn’t work my way down to that innermost Russian doll for 60 years. Only then did I learn her story.

For over twenty years now I have had to return to that child and try to address her despair and depression. It hasn’t worked very well. There are dolls around my house and teddy bears, a child’s rocking chair and certainly, I have catered to her love of reading. One of my best friends is my younger sister, whose newborn croup figured significantly in the ‘bad thing’. But the 6-year-old, let’s call her Jo as her maternal grandfather did, has been subject to what is best explained by the old spiritual, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child/ a long way from home, dear Lord/ a long way from home”. (See my memoir Never Tell  at joycehowe.com

Naturally, she has sought to attach herself to substitute mothers, and to feel equally abandoned when these people didn’t do the job. One of these has recently pointed out that I have within me the power to deal with Jo and her insatiable needs myself. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse – not that I didn’t want to.

So I began the tearful task of confronting Jo’s feelings head-on. (I have described this process.)    https://115journals.com/?s=the+cure+for+pain

I thought twice a day meditations on the trauma would fix things pretty quick. On the 4th day, I felt sufficiently together to go to the grocery store. Rude awakening. Jo was so depressed I could barely concentrate. I weighed a bag of mushrooms at the self-check-out and put in the code for whole wheat dinner rolls. I tried to walk out without paying for 2 gallon jugs of spring water. The friendly helper finally decided I was just dotty not larcenous. I unloaded my groceries into the car’s trunk and sat in the driver’s seat getting a grip.

At home, I decided that little Jo needed more conversation, so I started to talk to her – in my head, I hasten to say.

Now Jo belongs to an earlier time, September 1942 to be precise – when things weren’t going well in the war. It was not at all clear that Hitler wouldn’t win and send his bad men knocking on our door even in the province of Quebec in Canada. Children knew as much about the war as the CBC was permitted to tell us while we ate our dinner at noon and we understood how dire things were because we eavesdropped on adults in the time- honoured childhood way. That’s not to mention the school propaganda campaign that had us dragging in carts of glass bottles, tin cans, newspaper and stinky leftover fat to win the war.

Moreover, we were not only poor, we were rationed. Butter, eggs, lard, sugar and even molasses, the stalwart nutrients of any poor family were hard to come by.

As a result of this background Jo burst onto the scene full of -not grief – but wonder and curiosity. I spent a whole evening explaining – in my head. Her daddy had told her about the fact that after the war, radio would have pictures. She hadn’t believed him, but seeing it was not surprising. She had seen a refrigerator in the house across the street, but could I make ice cream like our neighbour. It was an exciting evening. Jo just would not calm down. In between these lessons, I reminded her that I was a big person now and I was her mommy. I didn’t choose to watch anything scary on television, but I did have to sing three verses of Amazing Grace. She was disappointed that my voice had got old, but it improved on the third rendition.

Today, she is quieter, but I know she isn’t going to let me bury her back inside that Russian doll and I can feel her looking out of my eyes.

Who Says Words with My Mouth

Who looks out with my eyes? What is
the soul? I cannot stop asking.

If I could taste one sip of an answer,
I could break out of this prison for drunks.

I didn’t come here of my own accord,
and I can’t leave that way.

Whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

Rumi trans. Coleman Barks. The Book of Love p. 57

 

The Look of Love: paying attention

I am sitting beside him in La Veranda Osteria, when he seizes my left hand in both of his  calling me, “Sweetheart” and gazing intently into my eyes. No wonder he has had women on several continents and the odd island falling for him. My brother has had this ability to charm ever since he ran away to Europe with a backpack at 17. At the moment, he is trying to convince me of something, some better way to live, perhaps, but I am too overcome by his undiluted attention to take it in.

Great to find this in a dinner date, even if he is your brother, but much more important in a doctor or medical practitioner. I remember sitting in a sound-proof third-floor office near LAX and being the focus of the undivided attention of my acupuncturist. She asked questions of such insight, listened with such concentration and considered me so deeply, that I felt entirely and absolutely loved. The interview itself was healing: there was no real need for needling. In fact, I have had a profound feeling of change for the better, just from talking to her on the phone. That was her goal – to be so present and available to her patients that they felt connected, not just to her  but to the power that animates us. Having felt that connection and felt it repeatedly, it became easier for us to make it on our own.

Actors and self-proclaimed gurus, who project charisma, attract us because they make use of this kind of focus although not perhaps with such benevolence. I once met an actor unexpectedly on my way down to his wife’s yoga studio and almost suffered third-degree burns from the radiance of his projection. I was gobsmacked, but I did not feel better for it.

I do feel better when I can master the trick myself. The 108 moves in tai chi give me that opportunity especially when I find myself acting as Corner. (A Corner, as you might expect, is at the end of a line and so in a leadership role.) There is a lot of repetition in such a set, but repetition with variations. For example, there are 3 sets of  “Wave Hands Like Clouds”, one of 5 of this sideways step with soft arm sweeps, one of 7 and one of 3. All of them begin from the position of “Single Whip” or “Whip to One Side”, but between the set of 5 and the set of 7, just when the sleepy Corner has zoned out, the move suddenly switches to “Fair Lady Works Shuttles” or “Four Corners”, an altogether more complicated move. I have often been embarrassed when I have missed that change, dissociated or planning dinner or gazing out the window. I was not in the now, not really present.

When I do hit that groove, I experience a mental rest, like a moving meditation from the one-pointedness. It is easier than meditation for me. The kind of meditation I practise when I am able is mindfulness, just being aware of what is going on, especially internally, observing  without attachment, as my acupuncturist would say – letting each thing go -each thought, feeling or sensation.

It’s a useful technique when I am beset by anxiety or depression or pain. If I sit down, just sit, not cross-legged or full-lotus nor even necessarily straight-backed, but easily, and observe what is going on in me, I gain some distance. I am watching what my mind is doing and so I am now in the role of observer, not sufferer. I am no longer my discomfort. I can stop spinning. I have heard that the goal of meditation is to still the mind. I don’t aim that high. But if I pay attention to it, it stops screaming in agony, like a crying child when her mother holds her and gives her her attention. It may well be that there is no solution. The grief cannot be assuaged. A fearful situation cannot be resolved. A physical pain is intractable. No matter. All these things are more bearable when looked upon steadily.

It doesn’t even have to be a look of love. Did my acupuncturist actually loved each of the parade of people who sat before her? (Of course, she did me.) She became absorbed in them so that there was no longer a separation between her and other. No other in fact. In the same way, I can reclaim my anger and self-loathing, my fear of ageing and death, whatever negativity is plaguing me. Once reclaimed, these parts of me seem to shrug and get on with life.

It is these negative feelings that prevent us from focusing, both on others and on our own mental health.

Eckhart Tolle has written several books, including The Power of Now to extoll the virtues of focusing. Jon Kabat-Zinn has told us how to heal ourselves through mindfulness in Coming to Our Senses. I have read these and others and found them inspiring, but it is simple practice that gives results. Like tai chi. We don’t really need to read more. We just need to do it.

“Attention must be paid,” Arthur Miller said in Death of a Salesman. “Pay attention,” our parents and teachers admonished. Yet we seldom do. We need something like the little bell that Buddhists sound during meditation calling out, “Be here. Be now. Wake up”.

Love is just that: being conscious.

108 Moves in the Right Direction: tai chi or NOT

The Tao Te Ching begins by telling us that the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. That is true of many things, your love for your spouse or children, for example. Try putting that into words. And it is certainly true of tai chi.

Anthony left a request on my book Never Tell‘s Facebook page asking me to write about tai chi. I replied I would think about it. I have done, for several weeks and I still don’t know where to begin. So I’ve stolen the motto of an international tai chi organization and I’ll see what I can do.

If you follow my blog, you know I am ancient of days. (not The Ancient of Days note. That’s another dude, who, presumably is a tai chi master Himself.) But, TA DA, drum roll please, I can stand on one leg and luffa the other foot, I can lie down on the floor and get back up with no help, (shut up chair), I can get out of the car without lifting the outside leg with my hands and so much more. I have survived 2 malignancies, one for 13 years and the other, completely different one, for 10. So much for the score sheet.

It is also true that I am one of those lucky people who are earning their wings through suffering. My body thinks it’s amusing to be in one kind of discomfort or the other all the time. It scrolls through a punishing list of pains and aches on a regular basis: bowel spasm, back spasm, leg spasm, indigestion, dizziness, feeling faint, feeling faint while sleeping (!), fatigue, exhaustion and, my personal favourite, diaphragm spasm and weakness.

Now Body’s objecting that much of this is caused by me or Mind that keeps shoving stuff down into flesh and muscle and organ and bone INSTEAD OF PROCESSING IT IN A MENTALLY HEALTHY WAY. OK, stop shouting. I hear you.

And so I do tai chi.

I started 20 years ago, but I began serious study only 15 years ago. As late as 10 years ago as I was recovering from major surgery in So Cal, I still couldn’t do the whole set up in Kenneth Hahn park without a plastic-covered cheat-sheet on the picnic table. When I was more or less better and back in TO, I started going to class more often and ended up instructing beginners for 8 years.

Listen, you don’t want to start tai chi. It’ll take over your life. You’ll get addicted to all those endorphins. You muscles will ache at first and you’ll have to consult your teacher about whether you need to correct something to stop it. You’ll be in trouble at home for being out so much. Just when you think you’ve got it, your teacher will let you know you haven’t. Then you’ll feel as if you can’t do it at all. There is absolutely no end to it. I’ve heard people say it will take several lifetimes just to get one move at the end, call it “Turn to Sweep Lotus” down pat. Face it -there is no “down pat”. There is no perfection. Never. You can go on learning forever.

OMG, you actually like that last idea!

Well, you wouldn’t like that feeling of calm that settles on you during the set, once you have  learned it enough to follow. You wouldn’t like the group energy that gets going when you follow each other well. You’re an individual aren’t you? You’re a North ‘Merican if not actually an ‘Merican. (No apology needed Ozzies as you know. You’re even more so. And that 1 German viewer same diff.) You don’t want some tai chi master correcting you. Good grief, all the instructors in my club are volunteers and we are supposed to maintain our own club building and run the damn place. “This is not an exercise club”, we are told. Charitable works, open hearts! Come on!

Of course, you may be able to find a tai chi club that espouses closed hearts, uncharitable works, etc. Good luck! Your club may just charge you a high fee and let you go your own way.

I have to confess that last Saturday, at the good old volunteer-based tai chi club, when 7 of us foregathered in a work party to lift and drill and clean and eat a delicious lunch that an  someone had brought unbidden, then I was carried back to my childhood and the church hall with the women setting out the chicken pie supper. I loved that group co-operation and getting things done.

Doing a tai chi set later, a group of 6 just like doing it in a group of 35 or on occasion in a group of 700, has that same feeling, many-fold.

I hesitate to recommend tai chi to you. It’s a serious decision. You’ll be frustrated at first. You don’t want that. You may hurt sometimes. You’ll never actually know whether it’s the tai chi that making you limber and strong and keeping you alive. And all that peace that comes of a moving meditation, how’s that going to jack you up?

Better not.

Transcendent Moments

I went to the woods to see how the trilliums were doing.

It has been an exceptionally early spring here in Toronto after an unseasonably warm winter with very little snow. They say things are about a month ahead. The magnolias paid a price for early budding when the temperature suddenly fell below freezing, but many of them just marked time in the bud stage and opened up in pink glory, only a little brown at the edges, when things warmed up. Now light green leaves are feathering out on some trees, so the trilliums, I reasoned, should be blooming before the trees cut off their light.

They were.

Trilliums have a sort of magic about them. They are highly regarded here because they are Ontario’s floral symbol and school children are taught NEVER TO PICK THEM because they will not grow back.

I had walked down the paved bicycle path into the park but left it to cross a culvert over a brook and climb up into the woods. The woods grows on sand dunes left here by an ancient lake, so there are sunny hillsides under the trees and it was on one of those that I found the trilliums. The lily of the valley leaves had also pushed up and were waiting their turn to unfurl with their heady perfume and a few violets lined the path.

I followed a freshet on a rough path, climbing over tree trunks, which on a warmer day would have tempted me to sit and stare. I came to an open field, already mowed, where families like to come to picnic. Then I turned east and began the climb onto a high ridge. Here the trees were still bare, but the bushes were green and there were masses of white flowers, which I have yet to identify.

There has been a tidal wave of butterflies this spring, mostly red admirals. One report told of a backyard covered in 2000 of them (How did they figure that?) Some of them were sunning themselves on the ridge path and as I approached they flew up and chased each other in circles. I was still wearing a huge grin when I met a man and his dog.

On one side, I looked down into the woods and on the other out at the city -street, railway, freeway, high rises, and beyond them Lake Ontario, deep blue for the nonce.

The week had brought a weight of difficulty as weeks often do. There were unresolved problems and uncertain outcomes. There was negativity to be processed. But here there was a sanctuary in the woods. Here there was stillness that comforted. Here there was peace.

Have you found such a place lately? Perhaps it was not even external. Perhaps you found it within. Tell us about it.

 

Journaling as Zazen

Zazen just means sitting, but we usually think of it as sitting in meditation. The idea is to quiet the mind in order to be with a deeper part of self, to gain a measure of peace.

Eckhart Tolle in his book The Power of Now describes it as being in the now, not anticipating the future or regretting the past, not planning, worrying, or processing, just being. Here we contact eternity, which is not, after all, in the future. Here we can find ourselves in heaven, which is not, after all, in the sky.

No doubt it is possible and in the forty years I have been at it, I may have actually got there a few times. Nowadays, there’s stuff in the way – wasn’t there always? – obsessive thoughts, runaway feelings, aches and pains. So I begin with the journal to give the mind a free rein, let it think all it wants and report back. It does run on, usually for half an hour and 4 or 5 handwritten pages. Then it’s the body’s turn to do the jongs or exercises associated with tai chi. This takes 15 minutes or so and leaves me limber enough to sit, but not, alas, to sit in full lotus position. Only now do I find it possible to let go of the racing mind. For whole seconds at a time!

Spiritual practice is always an individual choice, don’t you think? Whatever we do on a regular basis with concentrated focus can lead to self cultivation.

In his book of daily meditations, 365 Tao, Deng Ming-Dao says “Followers of Tao frequently use writing, art and even poetry as tools for self-discovery By articulating their experiences, it helps them to understand the stages they are going through. Once they can do this, it satisfies and neutralizes their rational minds.” (p. 63)

Journaling can be a meditation.