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.

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The Void Again: Something out of Nothing

A friend of mine beset by ill health and economic downturn, bewailed the fact that at 50, she has nothing. Her business is being sold. Her house is under water (over mortgaged in the failed housing market). She has no pension and she has used up her savings.

Ah, yes, the void again, the great emptiness.

Here we go, my dear, my answer to you: like me you have made you living by talking to others. It was the principal way you helped them heal. All those generous and compassionate words took wing and settled in their minds. They carried your words away and gradually understood them. They became better and better people for it. There is no way to see or measure this effect.

This week, Charlie Rose interviewed Oliver Platt, Lily Rabe and the producer and director of As You LIke It which is being presented in Central Park this month. Lily Rabe, who plays Rosalind, said that she never feels as alive as when she is playing Shakespeare. There is something about just saying the lines over and over that improves her mental health.

I know that feeling from years of reading his plays aloud and listening to students read them and listening to them go out the door still speaking in iambic pentameter without the slightest idea they were doing so. The very cadence and rhythm of the poetry change your brain waves. Behind that, lies Shakespeare’s deep understanding of feeling and his brilliant logic and insight into life. A bracing stimulant like a cool Perrier mist in a tropical bar above a deep blue lagoon.

All that talk just seems to vanish, like my grandmother Gladys’s deep throated story-telling and her great laughter of, for example, the time her French cleaning lady came running downstairs crying, “Gladness, Gladness, the house is on fire.” Indeed the house was on fire and subsequently burned to the ground, but fifty years later, Gladys rocked with laughter. After 96 years and 2 burned-out houses, Gladys is gone and only memory can hold that treasure now.

But it is real no matter how invisible.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen. (Hebrews XI, 1). Now faith is a slippery thing. As best as I can see it is the light of our looking and the sound of our listening. It isn’t some dread effort of will. The important idea in Paul’s words is that what is invisible can have substance, can indeed be evidence.

So we could count up what you really have accomplished substantially and visibly, mention, for example, two brilliant male off-spring and a soul mate. Or we could have faith that much more is going on here, the love that people bear you in their hearts is your Pulitzer, your Nobel Prize, your pearl of great price.

This is, after all, only an imitation of defeat and not a very good one at that.

Jack Reacher -Wandering Taoist

In my last post “How I developed ‘Low Tastes’ in Reading, I mentioned that I was hooked on Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers, to my dismay. Then, wouldn’t you know it, I found a justification: Jack Reacher is a wandering taoist.

It was reading # 156 in Deng Ming-Dao’s 365 Tao:Daily Meditations* the one for June 5th that clued me in to what I should have realized before.  (* Available at Amazon.com)

Inseparable: The trunk is hollow,/But the branches live./The void is fundamental,/But the ten thousand things are diverse./ Therefore wanderers free themselves of cares/And follow Tao in great delight.

In the ensuing explanation, Deng tells us that we can know all of Tao’s manifestation by travelling through the world. All experience is the experience of Tao. Those who follow it, divest themselves of ego and ambition and follow its flow throughout the land, moving from place to place as they sense the direction of its vital flow. “These wanderers have glimpsed the void that is in them and in all things. They delight in life but never see more than the void.”

As a volunteer, I once took a phone call from a very serious young man who wanted me to tell him what Taoism was. I replied civilly, I hope, that to answer would take longer than the average phone call and, besides, it was beyond me. Short answer -Tao is the stuff of life, the energy that animates it. Taoists believe in the supremacy of nature and the necessity of living by its laws, in particular the cycles of change. They understand that whatever is full and rich will decline in time and whatever is empty and poor will rise in turn. Taoists don’t talk about God in spite of reverence. Should they search for God, they would look, not in a book, but within.

I would say they are practical and work things out as they go along rather than adhering to doctrine. This story illustrates that: a Buddhist, a Confucian and A Taoist were meditating when mosquitoes began buzzing around their ears. The Buddhist let a mosquito bite him without protest. The Confucian slapped and killed his mosquito. The Taoist waved his mosquito away. When that didn’t work, he moved to another room. When the mosquito followed him there, he killed it. Taoists  prefer not to interfere unnecessarily but act instinctively when necessary.

It seems to me that many people are Taoists at heart, although they never identify as such. Joseph Campbell, for example, warned against being co-opted by the system. Systems prevent us from personal assessment and self-determination. They also enable us to succeed in our careers, attain wealth and social standing. Opting out has rather the reverse effect.

The fictional Jack Reacher attained the rank of major as U.S. military police officer. Then in 1997, he left that system over a moral disagreement, just short of being deployed to outer Thule or its equivalent. His pension is paid into a D.C. bank and accessed on the road. He doesn’t own a car, drives badly and flies only when he can’t take a bus or hitchhike, across the Atlantic, for example. He travels the United States according to whim, once deciding to follow a diagonal line from the north east to San Diego. He carries no baggage, except that folding toothbrush, I mentioned last time. When his clothes need washing, he buys new, cheap, sturdy shirts, pants etc. and throws the old ones away. he reckons that when you factor in the cost of a washing machine, dryer and the dwelling to contain them, not to mention the soap, he still comes out ahead. Nevertheless, he is a clean person, showering thoroughly in the cheap motels he chooses, although when he still wore his Class A’s complete with Purple Heart and Silver Star, he was not above cadging first class digs at the army’s expense.

Wherever he goes- Mississippi, Kansas, Colorado, he finds trouble or it finds him. Often all he does is step down from his ride, when the locals take agin him and try to run him out of town. Usually it is a very small town with its own ingrained and deeply corrupt system. But at 6’5″ and 250 lbs. and with some serious brawling smarts, the system’s minions don’t have much success throwing him out. Pretty soon, he has identified the nature of the corruption and its victims. He believes as he was taught that the best fight is no fight at all, but when a fight is necessary, he strikes first and dirty. In The Affair, he chides the rednecks who take him on for bringing only 6 men and takes them down readily. And they aren’t even the real enemy, just wrong-headed and misinformed.

I gave up watching boxing when I was 20 and now it just makes me think ‘concussion’, but Lee Child’s fight descriptions are choreography on paper. I would love to know how he knows all this stuff. Does he practise it the way I practise tai chi?

Jack Reacher can be counted on to right some wrongs before he blows out of town and to  leave behind more wisdom than he found there, that is for those who survive. The guiltiest may meet sudden ‘accidental’ ends, which cause Reacher neither remorse nor even a backward glance. He bids goodbye to his latest woman just as readily.

Now the purists among you may object that he also has sex on a regular basis. I counter, never indiscriminately and always on the basis of respect and affection as well as healthy desire. Besides Taoists are not purists. If they claim to be, that’s your first clue.

Jack Reacher looks into the void. The void looks back. That’s okay with him.