Today is the twenty-first of August. I’m sitting downstairs in our family cottage by the lake in Vermont. My mother and step-father are asleep upstairs and I am alone in the quiet of the morning twilight. A light rain falls, making innumerable tiny circles appear on the surface of the placid water out the window.
August twenty-first is the day I arrived in Japan in 1969, forty-five years ago. I was sixteen years old and pretty sure that I was nearly grown up. I had not yet read the research, nor seen the first-hand evidence that the human brain does not fully mature until one owner achieves his/her mid-twenties. And now, I beginning to suspect that full maturity is simply a perpetually dangling carrot that entices us forward.
But my year-long adventure as an exchange student began from here, Lake St. Catherine, Vermont. My parents, who were still together then, drove me down to New York City on August 17th. We were surprised at the amount of traffic on the New York State thruway. The radio said there was some kind of music festival at a small town called Woodstock. We thought nothing of it at the time.
I boarded the plane in New York, flew to San Francisco, then on to Hawaii where I spent the night. There was mechanical trouble on the plane from Hawaii the next morning so we had to turn back an hour into the flight to Tokyo. I still remember looking out the window and seeing the plume of fuel being released from behind the engine on the wing. The pilot helpfully informed us that we had to lighten our load to be able to land. A sign of my innocence and faith that everything would of course be OK is that I don’t remember being nervous at all.
They found us another plane in a few hours and we arrived at the Tokyo airport much later that day—which was actually the next day due to flying over the international date line. So it was on the twenty-first of August when eight young Americans from New York State arrived in Japan to spend a year living with Japanese families.
Looking back, I’m amazed that I was over there only twenty-five years after the end of World War II. As a sixteen-year-old, that seemed like ancient history. But now, looking back to 1989 and it doesn’t seem that far away. Now I realize that all the adults I met had lived through that time, perhaps as children, perhaps as adults. Some of them must have been in the army and all of them were part of the time of great hatred and wild imperialistic fervor.
We were met at the airport by the compact and incessantly jubilant man that would shepherd us through the year: Dr. Mitsuji Iwanaga. He was a doctor and owner of a small clinic who was the proud Rotarian who had volunteered to coordinate the exchange program for Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan. I remember him as perpetually being on the verge of laughter. He seemed to think life was a delightful joke that we should all share in. His English was broken, but he was an enthusiastic communicator. Later that year, I lived with his family for several months and was graciously welcomed in by his wife, four daughters and one son. They were all very kind. Including my 19 year-old sister Keiko who I thought was surpassingly beautiful.
Looking back, I am slightly embarrassed by my innocence and wild confidence. How little I knew of the many dimensions of life swirling around me and of the many wonders and difficulties that lay ahead. And I suppose I must be equally innocent now as well. In ten or twenty years, I will look back at this moment, sitting here in the family cottage in Vermont with my mother and step-father asleep upstairs. I will look back and wonder at the time that they were only in their mid-eighties—at the time they were still pulsing figures walking the shores of this lake that lives so deeply in my memory.
How could it be that things change? Where do we come from and where are we going? These mysteries swirl around me this morning. Past, present and future all here in the rising of the day and the gentle falling of the rain.
A friend of mine is getting older. In fact, all my friends are getting older, even the young ones. But this particular friend is in the second half of his ninth decade and heading quickly toward his tenth. Though his life has been long and healthy, now the body that was so unthinkingly dependable has become increasingly unreliable. These days, even simple activities require a surprising level of care and attention. The ground itself has receded to a difficult-to-reach distance and it no longer offers the stability of support that was taken for granted for so many years.
I watch closely because I know this is my fate too—the natural course of human life. This diminishment of competence catches so many of us by surprise. We lose so much—the trivial capacities that are impossible to appreciate until they are threatened. If I’m lucky, the losses will come slowly. Creeping over me like the fog that rolls so slowly in from the ocean in coastal Maine. The innumerable miniscule bits of water are all perfectly suspended in thin air. Impervious to wind and sun. Functioning together, they take away the horizon, then disappear what is near at hand well.
I remember one Sunday afternoon on Muscongus Bay, paddling out from Black Island. Three friends in our kayaks loaded with all the necessary gear for a four-day island adventure. According to the map, Thief Island lay a half a mile away due west. Usually just a short paddle of no consequence. But today, as we looked in the direction of the supposed island, there was nothing but the silent gray fog.
We didn’t have to go into the fog. We could have stayed the night on Black Island. But the day was young and it seemed like a good idea. So with compasses and maps carefully laid out on our decks, we pushed away from the steady shore and out into the afternoon twilight of fog.
Paddles lapped the water quietly in their job of dipping and pulling. After a few strokes, we turned and the land we which had moments ago been unquestioningly solid, had vanished completely. Our slender boats, low to the water, moved forward through the small waves into the trackless water. We stayed close together in the middle of the intimacy of visual disorientation.
That particular Sunday afternoon, enshrouded by fog and side-by-side in our boats, we made our magical crossing. We heard the birds, then the water on the rocks before Thief Island materialized. The silent rocks and trees appeared as if transported from another dimension. We were surprised, relieved and quite proud of our burgeoning navigation skills. It was a thrill to paddle through the narrow gap of visual disorientation and, relying on map and compass, to arrive at our desired destination.
Is human life like this? Are we all paddling through the increasingly dense fog toward the island of our true destination? I’ve heard talk of heaven, which I must confess that I mostly don’t believe. As poet and author Christopher Wiman says, “It is not that conventional ideas of an afterlife are too strange; it is that they are not strange enough.”
For millennia, human beings have written stories and sung the songs of wanderers and exiles. We have dreamt of finding our true home—the place where our anxious hearts can find ease—where we can lay down the sometimes heavy burden of the gravity of this mysterious incarnation.
Rising out of bed this creaky morning, I shuffle carefully to the bathroom. Even at the tender young age of sixty-one and three quarters, I walk slowly out of necessity and remember my even older friend. We’re both paddling the boats of ourselves toward the true island we’ve heard about in songs and seen on the maps. May we continue to enjoy the adventure, to keep our eyes on the compass though nothing can be confirmed, and appreciate the good company on the way.
Out in the courtyard here at the Arbogast retreat center in Goetzis Austria with thirty or forty young children. This the last day of their week of summer camp and they seem to be in constant motion—chattering effortlessly to each other in a language I assume is German. Like human beings everywhere, they have little awareness of the complexity of their communication. Held in our circle of common language practitioners, we focus on the content of our speech and the brilliant functioning of language is mostly unconscious.
Over the past week, I’ve been working on a longer blog post about the place of psychic contraction—about what happens when my usual equanimity vanishes and I travel in worlds of resentment and blame. It’s unusual for me to spend so long on one piece. Mostly I write early in the morning, working from some experience or dream that has caught my attention. I typically spend about an hour or so developing these short pieces. I shape the words and images that have come until each piece has some sense of flow and aliveness.
I almost always have a sense that I could keep wordsmithing—that if I worked longer on a piece, it would be better. But from my experience as a potter, I know that more work is not better. If you work on a piece too long on the potters wheel it loses its life. The clay begins to absorb more and more water and eventually refuses to hold any shape at all. So in my writing, when I get to where the piece feels ‘right’, I paste it into my blog and send it off—before my second thoughts about the necessity for perfection cause me to file it silently in the vast files that never make it beyond my computer files.
I write as a practice of noticing—as a way of understanding and deepening my own experience. Writing every morning helps me enter into and appreciate my own experience. But the selecting and editing of this writing for publishing in my blog or in some other way adds another dimension to the exploration. If I don’t get a piece ‘out’, something important doesn’t happen.
What I publish is more carefully organized and crafted than what I write just for myself. One potential pitfall of my style of writing is that I end up simply presenting a sanitized and clever version of my experience in order to look good in the eyes of my imagined readership. I am sure this happens to some degree, but my intention is to be as honest and helpful as I can. My goal in writing is to present some aspect of human experience in a way that invites my readers to notice and be curious about their own felt experience and the world around them.
At a leadership course I took nearly ten years ago now, I was ‘diagnosed’ as a 4 in a personality typing system distantly related to the enneagram (in which I am certainly a 9 for you devotees out there.) Fours have a strong connection to their own inner life. They tend to be creative and prone to depression or at least dysthymia. This all seemed at least partially true for me, but the most helpful part of my 4 diagnosis was finding out that 4s often need to share what they know. The intensity of their inner life is such that if they don’t teach or write or create, the very energies that enliven them can bring them down.
This feels true for me – I need to teach, write, share with others what I know. I also need to practice – but the sharing is what saves me. Perhaps this is part of the importance of writing to me. My days gallivanting around Europe as a spiritual teacher on the ‘white light circuit’, are numbered. At some point my travel adventures will be not involve traveling to distant lands but just summiting a flight of stairs or traversing the distance from bed to toilet. But this practice of writing—of close observation and then shaping in words and sounds into small missives to send out into the vast universe, this I can do as long as my fingers are willing to cooperate.
But in this moment, I am here in the northwestern corner of Austria, thousands a miles from the Temple. I’m sitting on the edge of a cobblestone courtyard where a young girl speaks in animated tones into her phone. The only word I understand ‘Mama’, but I imagine she is describing the triumphs and challenges of her day at camp. Her excitement and wish to share her experience is palpable.
Children fill the retreat center this weekend here at Arbogast. They seem to run everywhere and fill the space with their energetic sounds. Though I am partial to silence and the sound of the birds, I appreciate what my mother said to me when I once complained about the racket my two little sisters were raising while I was trying to watch TV or do something important: “At least they are happy sounds.”
Still, I am glad these sweet children will be gone by the time our silent retreat begins this evening.
The other day, I got caught in an argument with an old friend. He and I used to be as close as brothers but over the years we have drifted apart. Separate families. Separate lives. We see each other on the rare occasion and are cordial, but that’s about it.
We’ve had to deal with a tricky business matter and though we were disagreeing, I was OK until I heard something second-hand that sent me over the edge. Though the content of the disagreement is quite important, it’s this familiar edge in me that I’m most curious about.
I tend to be a fairly even-tempered person, but over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to study this place of ‘over the edge’ from many different perspectives. I’m going along just fine and then something trips the switch. In an instant go from being kind and generous David to being self-righteous and resentful David. I become convinced of my purity and correctness and all too clearly see the errors of the other person. (I suspect this is what Jesus was referring to when he spoke of us not noticing the log in our eye while we see the splinter in the eye of another.) Though this state has the power to take over my thinking in a moment, it’s surprisingly difficult to discern that I am actually in this place because it doesn’t feel like a place at all.
From the inside of my experience of ‘over the edge’, I am merely observing of the truth of the situation: ‘I am right and you are wrong.’ In the midst of being caught the repetitive thinking and judgment, I am quite convinced of the clarity and fairness of my perception. This inability to distinguish reality from perception is at the heart of a number of quite popular Matrix-like movies that explore the possibility that, as the Buddha taught, we spend most of our lives in a dream-like state. I have, however, begun to notice that there is one way I can reliably tell that I am caught up in the cycle of resentment and blame rather than in a more spacious relation to reality.
The ‘tell’ for me is when I find myself rehearsing dialogue in my head. I run through all the clever and irrefutable things I might say to make this other person see the wisdom of my position and the error of their ways. In my mind, it appears that if only I can come up with the perfect thing to say, then the other person will change and I will be released from my problem. These internal dialogues run one after the other and almost all of them end with my imagined triumph and vindication.
The problem is that this mental state of indignant self-justification is extremely painful for the one who is engaged in it. Coming unbidden (perhaps at 3:00 in the morning), it feels impossible to get out of. Like a terrible talk radio station that plays in my mind and though I try to change the station, the dial is stuck.
The challenge at this point is to be able to realize the repetitive and self-reinforcing nature of this mind state. The words and images running through my head masquerade as thinking and problem-solving but are actually repetitive and obsessive. Each clever line in my head simply convinces me more of my blamelessness and the injustice that is being foisted on me. Caught in this mind moment, I am convinced that my situation is intolerable and the only option is to get the other person to change. It’s a matter of principle and I must stand up to this particular injustice.
Now I want to be clear that there is injustice in the world – terrible injustice that we all are called to stand up to—to take action in deed and word to do what we can to end suffering and violence. But what I’m talking about here is something quite different. This place of obsessive objection is mostly the deep desire to have the world conform to my fantasies. I believe that what I see and feel is the one and only Truth, rather than one of many perspectives. This place of ‘over the edge’ is also about the delusion that the solution to my problem is that someone else needs to change. That’s part of the pain of this mind space—the assumption that the only way I can feel better is if YOU do something/say something different. Life in this mind-state is a powerless place that perfectly reinforces its own truth.
For me, the way out of this place is not an easy matter. The first step comes from recognizing I am caught. So when I notice myself running over the same conversation over and over, I begin to suspect that I may not be in my right mind—that the thoughts in my head are not helping me. But even knowing this (again the test case is the 3 a.m. one) I most often can’t just stop thinking these thoughts. The flow of this mental rumination is amazingly compelling.
One direction that has sometimes proved helpful in releasing me from this cycle of blame and resentment is to remember what I really want. (Note: the root of the Pali word for mindfulness is ‘to remember.’)
It’s a question I ask often in my work as a life and leadership coach. “What do you really want?” I’ve been told that this question itself is narcissistic and leads to a small view of action and possibility. But I don’t think so. When I ask people what they really want, and stay with the question, they almost always go beyond external things. When we stop and consider, we often find that what we want has to do with connection and relationship, with freedom and ease rather than just getting our way.
For me, when I ask this question, ‘What do I really want?’, the answer that arises is about the wish to wake up to the fullness of my life. I want to meet whatever comes my way with curiosity and engagement. I want to appreciate each moment of my precious and brief life, regardless of the content. When I can touch this deep inner wish, it sometimes has the power to release me from the grip of complaint and resentment.
But it’s touch and go at this point. I can remember that I want to wake up to my life, but in the moment I’m also caught up by the feeling that I really, really want to be right – to be justified. Sometimes it takes all the clarity I can muster to intentionally turn my mind toward myself and the very real work I have to do rather than staying lost in the world of blame and self-righteousness. Sometimes I am able to do this, sometimes I am not.
Talking to friends helps too.
The other day, still in the grip of it all, I spoke with two dear friends about my stuckness and resentment. Both friends met me with curiosity and compassion. One suggested I give voice from the place of the problem itself and then from the perspective of my old friend. This was helpful. My other friend was willing to listen and to acknowledge the humanness of this place of contraction. Both helped break the trance of righteousness and bring me back to a place of more possibility and freedom.
This ‘over the edge’ place does not last forever (for most of us). We cannot will our way out but we are, at some point, released. I am always grateful when I find my way out. It never feels like I have vanquished something, but more like some release has been granted to me.
The problem with my friend still remains but I am now recommitted to moving forward without expecting him to be different. I don’t know if we’ll be able to work out our issue, but I do know that I am not ‘right’ in any absolute sense. I still hold strong opinions about the matter at hand, but while working things out, I can at least continue to keep my focus on myself and my actions rather than being caught in the cycle of resentment and blame.
It’s not much, but it’s a big deal.
What is the same: variegated grass in the garden – hardy and of the same variety as I have at the Temple. Wild blackberries hanging in thorns by the path. A stream running through the woods. Green trees. A cool breeze under the tree while the hot sun shines.
What’s different: flies – I’d forgotten the flies here at the retreat center. Common houseflies that don’t bite, but walked step by excruciating step over my scalp last year during meditation. I’m here at a retreat center in Gotzis, Austria with Melissa to lead a meditation retreat for mindfulness practitioners. We flew overnight into Zurich.
Groggy and slightly disoriented from just a few hours sleep, we are picked up by our host at the airport. We drive northeast through the Swiss countryside, complete with fields of picturesque sunflowers nodding in the afternoon breeze. Soon Lake Boddenzee appears in the distance. Then, just before the Austrian border, the sign for Rheineck (bend in the Rhine). As we drive by, I imagine my father’s fathers and mothers working these hilly fields—that perhaps I am of Swiss heritage, not German as I have always thought. Surely Rynick is an Ellis Island adaptation of Rheineck
Arriving at the retreat center, I unpack and then take my weary body outside for a short stumble in the late afternoon. I walk down by the farm in the valley, then back up the hill to sit on a wooden bench overlooking the pasture. Steep wooded hills in the near distance—more dramatic than what I’m used to—patches of sheer rock faces are visible on some of the hills. I sit on the bench in a near-stupor. Appreciating the shade and the cool breeze. Hot in the sun, but low humidity and cool with the wind on my bald head. I try to appreciate the sameness and difference of this place. Jerked awake by my reflexes just before I fall asleep and off the bench, I do some desultory qi gong moves and return to our room.
Fersten-zee Aenglish? (Do you understand English?) Ich ferstia kin Deutsch. (I don’t understand any German.) Lying on our beds before dinner, we practice our first German lesson from Melissa’s ipad. My mouth feels full of mashed potatoes as I try to imitate the unfamiliar sounds of the man doing his best to teach us. Later at dinner, the new words tumble in my head but cannot find their way into utterance. Must review lesson one again tomorrow. My learning goal: to say (in context) the true but paradoxical sentence: ‘I don’t understand any German.’