poetry

Life as a glowstick

Nora Meiners sent me a link to this video of herself performing “Glowsticks” at the Women of the World Poetry Slam. It deals with the familiar parental situation of dealing with a child who can’t get his head around the impermanence of a toy, and makes the connection with the impermanence of our own lives. We’re more like glowsticks than not…

Nora graduated from Emerson College with a BFA in Creative Writing but started writing poems fairly only recently She has competed in the National Poetry Slam for Boston Poetry Slam (2013) and Lizard Lounge Poetry Slam (2014). She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I like the poem, although I’d love to see it performed with more warmth and tenderness, which I think would heighten its emotional effect compared to the more declarative style shown here.

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“For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.” (Day 9)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Yesterday I discussed what “well” means when we say “May you be well.” It’s not as straightforward as “physical health.” Today I’d like to talk about what “happy” means when we say “May you be happy.” Again this isn’t as straightforward as you might think.

I was prompted to think about this because of questions people had about the recent bombings at the Boston marathon, and what it means to cultivate lovingkindness for the bomber or bombers. But this applies to many of the people we find difficult, and whom we bring into the fourth stage of the metta bhavana practice.

One person commented that some of the people he finds difficult are destructive and “cause problems for those around them, and inflict pain on others, in family or work contexts.”

So naturally we wouldn’t want them to go around wreaking destruction in this way, but being happier as they did so! And in fact he spelled that out:

I have no difficulty wishing that they be physically healthy and safe. But I imagine their “happiness” or “living with ease” as very probably involving the detriment of others – if they do not change their behaviour.

It’s the last part — “if they do not change their behaviour” — that’s the key. Because from a Buddhist point of view, real happiness isn’t an add-on extra that you can simply bolt onto an existing life that’s deeply unskillful. Real happiness is actually the outcome of a life lived skillfully, and so in wishing that the difficult person be happy, we’re wishing that they be the kind of person who is kind, and mindful, and who creates happiness.

There are different kinds of happiness, according to Buddhist teachings. For example there is, according to one sutta, worldly happiness, unworldly happiness, and a still greater unworldly happiness.

I won’t go into these in detail, but the point is clear that there is a hierarchy of types of happiness, from the worldly (which includes the pleasure people get from being unkind), to the unworldly (which includes the happiness we get from meditation, although this would include all happiness that we get from acting with mindfulness and kindness), to the “still greater unworldly happiness” which arises in the mind that is freed of greed, hatred, and delusion.

So when you’re wishing that someone who normally acts destructively be “happy” you’re wishing them at least the “unworldly” happiness that comes from being an aware, empathic, ethically responsible human being, and maybe even the “still greater unworldly happiness” that comes from being enlightened.

And actually, this is a tough thing to wish on anyone! When we move from acting unskillfully to becoming more mindful and loving, there’s a time when we look back at our lives and have to accept responsibility for the harm we’ve done. And this is a very painful thing. In thinking of the true happiness of awakening, I’m reminded of Rilke’s words, “For here there is no place / that does not see you. You must change your life.” The mind of compassion that develops within us, becomes the place where we are seen, and so our lives must change — sometimes painfully.

Now I’m not suggesting that we wish pain on anyone, but just pointing out that to wish someone real happiness is not to wish that they be given a free pass that absolves them of the harm they’ve caused. It’s to wish that they be seen by their own conscience, and that they do the hard work that this “being seen” demands.

[See the previous 100 Days of Lovingkindness post : See the next 100 Days of Lovingkindness post]
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Poet and memoirist Mary Karr on meditation, depression, and the ego

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The Poetry Foundation has an interview with the American poet and memoirist Mary Karr, in which she discusses how the mind can be its own worst enemy:

If you’re suicidal, your mind is actually the keenest threat to your survival. Yet depressed people still listen intensely to their minds even though said minds NEVER have anything good to say. Think of it, you try to employ the diseased organ to cure itself! If someone outside your body were shouting those awful things you say to yourself in such times, you’d plug your ears and sing lalalala. You have to stop that mind or die.

A simple meditation practice I started twenty-three years ago involves counting my breaths one to ten over and over. Pure hell at first. I evolved through various practices—some Christian and Ignatian spiritual practices taught to me by a Franciscan nun and a few Jesuits along the way. I came back to breath last year. For me God is in the moment, and I tend to do everything I can to avoid being in such a stalled, unproductive place as the present. The ego has to stop inventing its reality and notice what’s actually going on, which process kills it (the ego) a little if you’re lucky.

Here’s the full interview.

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“Cherish This,” by Satyadevi

With the author’s permission I’m pleased to offer to you a poem by New Zealand author Satyadevi, from her book, “Stone, Sea and Sand: Poems and Reflections on the Buddha’s Teaching on Impermanence.” Half the proceeds from the sale of the book are going to support the Christchurch Earthquake Red Cross Appeal, with the remainder going towards improving facilities Sudarshanaloka Retreat Centre, including accommodations for people with disabilities.

Cherish this – Clare College Gardens on midsummer’s day where as close and as sweetly elusive
as the orange blossom’s scent
love strayed in,
stayed a while and went.

Cherish this – the first virginal touch of spring that comes so lightly fingering
with palest sunlight tips
the tallest tree tops –
then leaves them unbelieving.

Cherish this, the dance of the winter wind combing the valley floor and the mountain air netted by
shards of light that
drape the hills like a secret veil
this perfect
full moon
night.

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“Stone, Sea and Sand: Poems and Reflections on the Buddha’s Teaching on Impermanence” by Satyadevi

sudarshanaloka stupa

Between November 2010 and February 2011, New Zealand, a country of 4 million people, suffered two of the biggest disasters in its history.

The Chilean mining disaster had many of us riveted to our TV screens as miner after miner was brought to safety, having been trapped underground for 69 days. This was not to be the case in New Zealand. After an explosion at the Pike River Mine in New Zealand’s South Island, anxious families, buoyed by the Chilean experience, waited for long days and nights for a breakthrough that might bring their men home. None of the 29 miners and contractors survived.

Only three months later, Christchurch, New Zealand’s third largest city, was decimated by its second major earthquake in a year. This event killed 185 and maimed many more, both physically and mentally. Currently many of the historical buildings are being demolished and hundreds of city residents are in no-man’s-land awaiting the bureaucratic Earthquake Commission’s decision as to whether their homes are viable or not. They have been through a freezing winter with major cracks in walls with only tarpaulins to keep the wind out, a bit like Haiti, with snow. Homicide, domestic violence, substance abuse and suicides have risen indicating many inhabitants continue to suffer post-traumatic stress disorder.

The desire to make sense of these tragedies led Satyadevi to compile and publish some of her poetry, donating half the proceeds to the Christchurch Earthquake Red Cross Appeal, with the remainder going towards improving facilities at the beautiful 250 acre valley that is home to Sudarshanaloka Retreat Centre. The photo on the cover features Dhardo Rimpoche’s stupa at the facility.

Satyadevi’s volume combines threads of the raw energy of New Zealand with her Buddhist reflections on impermanence. Receptivity to the underlying drumbeat of this nation’s painful seismic birth and her awareness that it is all but a splash on the tabula rasa of becoming, imbues her poetry with poignancy, beauty and acceptance.

Satyadevi’s own personal grief, like that of Kisagotami, found universalization and acceptance which she has expressed movingly in waiata (Maori lament)

In ancient India, a young mother called Kisagotami had just lost her young son and was mad with grief. She could not accept that her beloved first born was dead. With the dead child in her arms, she ran from house to house asking for medicine for her little son. At every door she begged: “Please give me some medicine for my child,” but the people replied that medicine would not help any more, the child was dead. Kisagotami refused to accept this, despite the coldness and stiffness of his little body. One kind person suggested she go and find the Buddha who was staying in the Jeta Grove in Anathapindika’s monastery.

She burst into the middle of a discourse being given by the Buddha to a large gathering. Totally despairing and in tears, with the corpse of the child in her arms, she begged the Buddha, “Master, give me medicine for my son.” The Awakened One interrupted his teaching and replied kindly that he knew of a medicine. Amazed, she asked what this could be.

“Mustard seeds,” the Enlightened One replied, astounding everyone present.

The Buddha replied that she need only bring a very small quantity from any house where no one had died. Joyfully Kisagotami ran back to the town. At the first house, she asked whether any mustard seeds were available. “Certainly,” was the reply. But then she remembered to ask the second question, whether anyone had died in this house. “But of course,” the woman told her, and crestfallen, she withdrew. She went from door to door but was unable to find any house where no one had died. The dead are more numerous than the living, she was gravely informed.

Towards evening she finally realized that, as she had suffered, so many others had suffered. Her heart opened in compassion to the reality of universal suffering through death. In this way, the Buddha was able to heal her obsession and bring her to acceptance of reality. Kisagotami no longer refused to believe that her child was dead, but understood that death is the destiny of all beings, sooner or later.

She then became a disciple of the Buddha and found peace.

Satyadevi dedicated her poem “Kisagotami” to the families of the Pike River Miners. She writes:

In time Kisagotami’s heart found full release and the end of grief –
when she perceived that all things worldly must decline
when their conditions cease.

The poetry is not only an expression of the mystery of death but a way in which we can come to terms with it, or if we cannot make sense of it, to use it to become better human beings.

In this crowded world of the sound byte, it is increasingly rare to find material born of deep reflection and solitude. Such a volume of work sings songs of fresh possibilities in a fragmented, troubled era.

Stone, Sea, and Sand is available from Lotus Realm.

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“Pocket Peace: Practices for Enlightened Living,” by Allan Lokos

Pocket Peace, by Allan Lokos

In Pocket Peace, Allan Lokos, founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center located on New York City’s upper west side, offers some practical advice for those of us who are seeking to create more balance in our lives.

It’s no newsflash that living in modern times can be a challenge to the development of our spiritual selves. The truth of the matter, however, is that there have always been daunting challenges to developing a strong spiritual practice. Early Buddhists recognized this by creating the “Paramis,” or “Perfection Practices.” In this book, Lokos re-investigates the Buddhist “Paramis” and builds on them by offering effective “pocket practices” that we can use to better ourselves and have a greater understanding of the world around us.

Title: Pocket Peace: Practices for Enlightened Living
Author: Allan Lokos
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1585-42781-9
Available from: Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.

I began reading this book during a transitional moment in my life and found it to be a welcome source of wisdom and re-assurance. When the book arrived in the mail, I was in the process of moving into a different apartment, had just gone through a difficult break-up, and was transitioning from seven months of joblessness into a full-time kitchen job. I found Lokos’ third chapter, entitled, “Relinquishing” to be timely medicine as I began a new life in a new home.

In Chapter 1, “Generosity,” Lokos reminds us that the Buddha placed generosity at the top of a list of six “virtuous practice that lead the way to Enlightenment.” Here is Lokos’ suggested practice for cultivating generosity in our daily lives: “For one week carry at least five dollar bills with you wherever you go and do not walk past anyone who is asking for help.” I liked this chapter because Lokos encourages the reader to develop their own idea about what generosity is, and in particular, leads us to re-examine our notions of morality, and whether the culturally-accepted version of morality is in alignment with our own experiences.

Lokos gently reminds us that “We need never be bound by the limitations of our previous or current thinking, nor are we ever locked into being the person that we used to be, or think we are” (p. 60). An existing understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist practice is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of this book. For the uninitiated, it can be a fascinating glimpse of Buddhism in practice in modern day NYC, and offer some practical suggestions for being a better person without “taking vows.” For those whom already practice Buddhism in their everyday lives, this book can be a pleasant re-introduction to the “Paramis.”

In Lokos’ own words, “these practices are intended to help us become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and motivations, and to see things as they really are, not as they appear to be” (foreword, p. 22). This is a well-written book by an experienced practitioner, teacher, and author. It does not talk down to the reader, rather, encourages them to walk a little taller; to think a little clearer.

Sprinkled with haiku and encapsulated by delightful cover art, and a faux antique-style book-binding, this text should make a welcome addition to any bibliophile’s collection. It even comes with a little pocket-sized card with some of the practices from the book which the reader can carry with them and refer to throughout the day.

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