Returning from a week-long Zen retreat in Tallahassee, we circle Boston toward our approved entry-path. Over the Atlantic, a glimpse of the rising full moon—horizon hidden somewhere beyond the aqueous reflection.
On an airport call from Charlotte, an older friend confided to me, with great regret, that he no longer has the physical stamina to manage even simple chores around the house.
As we land, I snap photos of the tender moon and vow once again to appreciate the many miraculous things my body can do—like picking my clothes up from the floor where I scatter them nightly for safe keeping and even (occasionally) vacuum the dust bunnies that cavort harmlessly under my dresser.
I’m throwing pots again. Deciding to move to the Temple four years ago meant disassembling the pottery studio I had had for twenty years at our old house. During the move, the old kiln essentially disintegrated and I got caught up in the new place and writing my book and … So all the clay and materials and supplies have sat piled in boxes in the garage since then. They have weighed on me – those boxes in the garage – the calling of this activity that has been a part of my life for so long. Mostly I have tried to ignore it and pretend that I have moved on to other creative outlets. It has felt too overwhelming to consider the complexity of setting everything up again.
But two weeks ago I signed up for a class at the Worcester Center for Crafts – signed up with my grown daughter and pottery partner, Rachel. We found a time both of us could do – a short class, just six weeks and she was willing to drive in from Cambridge. At the beginning of the first class, the nice teacher at the Worcester Center for Crafts, offered to show us how to throw again, but we declined and have, for the last week, been enjoying the muscle memory of all those years of throwing pots.
As I sit at the potters wheel, I remember Byron Temple. I took a week-long workshop with him in the late 1970s. He was a production potter who had trained with the famous Bernard Leach in England. Leach was the one who went to Japan and studied with Shoji Hamada and wrote eloquently about the possibility and necessity of making things by hand in a world increasingly dominated by machines.
Byron claimed that no one has ever improved on the shape of a Campbell’s soup can for a mug. He threw simple cylinder-type mugs with just a subtle swirl imparted by the wooden rib used to assist the throwing. As a production potter, his intention in the activity of throwing was to create a dance of minimal motion and maximum efficiency. And the functional gestures of this dance were left visible in the finished product. It was lovely to watch him – the clay seemed to respond effortlessly under his masterful hands and cup after cup would appear – all the same—and all just slightly different.
Byron was also a neat-nick and had though his studio was in New Jersey, he retained a slight English accent that he was in no hurry to shed. He wore a pair wrinkle-free blue jeans and a pressed white shirt with the sleeves partially rolled up. When he threw, he wore an apron, but I never saw a bit of clay on his apron or his clothes. I have never seen anyone work with clay and stay so clean. The middle-aged housewives who were at the workshop with me were all a-twitter over him, even though he was openly gay and not particularly interested in their ministrations.
The one exercise I remember him giving us – our potters wheel spread out in a large circle with him in the center – was to make a mug in one minute. If you’ve ever thrown a pot on the potters wheel, you know how long it can take just to center the clay. Especially when you are relatively new to the craft, you can spend five minutes just trying to get the clay to revolve evenly at the center of the wheel. But we went around the circle giving it our best, one by one. Byron had his stopwatch and at the end of one minute, whatever we had on our wheel was our ‘mug.’ As I recall, very few of them were drinkable.
That was over thirty years ago and ever since, when I sit down at the wheel after being away for a while, I begin with making mugs—just to get warmed up. I make Byron Temple mugs – simple cylinders with subtle throwing lines. I try to make them quickly without rushing. Mostly what I learned from Byron was a way of working toward a liveliness that is inherent to the process itself.
So I am delighted to be back throwing pots. I love the wetness of the spinning clay, the thousands of shapes that appear and disappear in an instant as the wheel spins, the possibility of making simple objects that are the texture and the substance of our lives.
And a great shout-out to Byron who died in 2002 and to all the potters and craftspeople who practice this ancient and amazing human art.
Sitting at my desk, I lean back in my chair and feel a beam of energy flowing down into my chest. My whole body begins to float effortlessly upward. Even in the dream, I’m slightly self-conscious as I am carried upward. Part of me hopes that I’ll get to meet God.
As I go higher, I feel less and less identified with this body I call me. My skin edges are blurred as I begin to blend in with the rest of the universe. But, curious about what I have left behind, I turn over to look down on the earth. In this moment, I realize I’m not ready to leave. I love this blue-green world of shapes and textures—of smells and sensations. It’s not a matter of defending life and avoiding death. It’s just this sweet desire to stay and play a little longer.
But as I float, this dissolving into everything is more wonderful than I can describe. As natural as a wave returning to the water. A relief. A remembering of what I have forgotten. Like the spirituals suggest – ‘Gonna lay down my burden’ – this is, I think, what death is – a laying down of the heaviness of our selves – re-membering ourselves as the whole universe. Re-entering the larger perspective.
Last month, there was a great article in the NY Times about the discovery of the Higgs boson which has sometimes been called the ‘God particle’ as it seems to be what gives electrons their mass, their substance. For scientists, the discovery of the Higgs (as physicists call it) affirmed the view of a cosmos ruled by laws of almost diamond-like elegance and simplicity, but in which everything interesting — like us — is a result of lapses or flaws in that elegance. NY Times – 10 8 13
Perhaps death is returning to the flawless elegance. We are just momentary disruptions in the immeasurable beauty of the cosmos. Mostly there is just ‘diamond-like elegance and simplicity,’ but sometimes there is a precious lapse or a flaw – through which time and matter—and you and me are created. A universe comes into being and lives a million billion years and then disappears – all in an instant.
But as I float in my dream between the two worlds, my heart beats in resonance with snaking rhythm of the river’s meandering. My arms long to move with the tree branches as the wind entices them once more into their circumscribed dance. And I know I’m not ready to leave.
Do people only die when they are ready to leave? Do you become ready to leave in the instant that you are run over by the bus? Or the blood vessel in your brain bursts? I suspect it may be so, but certainly people die in the midst of terrible pain and panic. People die saying ‘I don’t want to die.’ But at some point, willing or not, we die – our biological signifiers cease to be vital and we return to the heart of the mystery with all that have come before.
But in my floating dream, this time, I get to choose. Two wonderful choices – no pressure – it’s just that I’m not ready to leave. I’m happily attached to the softness of skin and the wetness of muddy water—the impossible brilliance of the sun and the quiet glow of the rising moon.
Without understanding, I say yes to this world of form that calls me back again and again.
This morning I wake up and remember my new practice of turning toward my fear. But, when I turn my attention inward, I don’t find any sensation of fear or anxiety. This is odd. The familiarity of the subtle fear I encountered yesterday morning had me thinking that this fear was my constant companion. Yet this morning, it’s nowhere to be found.
Right now, I am surprised to find that I feel neutral—not good, not bad. I suppose you could say I am ‘free from fear’, but it’s not in the wonderful, ecstatic way I imagine that state to be. I feel natural and alive. I recall the teachings that human beings spend the majority of our time in this place of neutral. I’ve never noticed it in quite this way before.
This is an unfamiliar place. I find it slightly disturbing and notice my resistance to just allow it to be. Part of me wants to find a solid place to stand—to generate a strong opinion or a clear plan that locates me in the space-time matrix of the everyday world. But I find that, with conscious attention, I can stay here—in the middle of not knowing. I don’t have to panic and grab for solid ground. I can rest here.
My clock tells me it’s 5:42. The morning light has not yet touched the dark sky. A day is coming that neither frightens me nor calls to me. I lie in bed consciously allowing for the possibility that everything will be revealed in its own time—and that for now, not knowing is enough.
Last night, Melissa and I began teaching a four-week class here at the Temple on the Four Abodes. These are the teachings of the Buddha concerning cultivating the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. As the entry point into exploring loving-kindness, we led people through three-step process of becoming aware of fear and/or anxiety that may be present, noticing the resistance that may arise around this fear, and imagining what it might be like to be free from fear.
So waking up this morning, I decide to try it for myself.
First I notice the usual soft but disturbing quiver in the region of my solar plexus. The sensation of slight contraction in my chest is so familiar that it feels more like a quality of the world rather than a feeling I am having. Some mornings, the sensation is stronger and sometimes it appears to be connected to a particular situation occurring in my life. But as I wake up this morning and turn my attention toward the fear, I am aware that it is almost always present.
As I turn my attention toward the sensation of this discomfort, I am conscious of how much I usually resist feeling this. I most often just try to ignore it. My internal (not-so-kind) voices say: ‘This is just the way it is. There’s no use in paying attention to it. Why don’t you just get over it?’ Other times I try to reason with myself to make it go away: ‘You know you have a wonderful life. There’s no need to feel this way,’ Or I try to fix it: ‘If I can just work out a solution in my head, then I’ll be fine.’
But this morning, I just notice this subtle sensation of fear. It’s not really painful, just deeply unsettling—as if there were some urgent message of impending ill that is being broadcast in my heart – something bad that might happen, or some essential thing I might forget to do, or some way in which I will not measure up and be abandoned… I notice my urge to resist this feeling by moving away from the sensation so I don’t have to feel it or by trying to fixing it so it disappears. I choose to do nothing.
My usual practice of loving-kindness begins with the phrase ‘May I be free from fear.’ I often repeat this and other traditional phrases, with the intention of tapping into my genuine desire that I (and others) might be free from fear.
But this morning, I turn toward imagining what it might be like to be free from fear – free from this ancient quivering of the heart. The direction is not about arousing my longing to be free (and have others be free) from fear, but is the more neutral exercise of imagining.
I gently ask myself what it might it be like to be free from fear. What would it be like to lie here in the dark of the early morning in a place of ease and spaciousness? I don’t try to make myself feel this or try to change how I’m feeling—but in the act of imagination, I enter into the space of some new possibility. And I simply allow that possibility to be present along with everything else.
Turning my attention back to my internal state, I still notice the contraction in my chest has diminished. Now barely perceptible—held within the softer space of the possibility of ease.
What if it’s true that we live in a world that is filled with the possibility of grace? What if we don’t have to continually struggle to prove our worthiness? What if what we long for has already been given—given in such abundance that we can’t see it because it is so near?