Joep Franssens’ Harmony of the Spheres and the art of Sohan Qadri
Both express the sense of peace and power that comes from mediation and tapping into the Unconscious. A powerful duo. Enjoy.
I love this photo of the Zen sage D.T Suzuki. He was one of my first “gurus” if I, or he, believed in such things. His “Essays in Zen Buddhism” certainly was a huge influence in my life, as he was for so many, including Martin Heidegger, Thomas Merton, Carl Jung, Alan Watts, and John Cage.
So I was excited to find this photo and article about him on Maria Popova’s fascinating website Brainpickings. Many of the quotations she includes were ones I highlighted in my dog-eared copy so long ago. I highly recommend you reading her article on “How Zen Can Help You Cultivate Your Character.”
What I love about Suzuki’s approach to Zen is its emphasis on the psychological and the practical, and the turning away from the merely logical and rational, or verbal.
“The truth of Zen is the truth of life,” he writes, “and life means to live, to move, to act, not merely to reflect.”
He goes on to explain:
“In the actual living of life there is no logic, for life is superior to logic. We imagine logic influences life, but in reality man is not a rational creature so much as we make him out; of course he reasons, but he does not act according to the result of his reasoning pure and simple. There is something stronger than ratiocination.”
“Zen is to be explained, if at all explained it should be, rather dynamically than statically. When I raise the hand thus, there is Zen. But when I assert that I have raised the hand, Zen is no more there.”
“Zen therefore ought to be caught while the thing is going on, neither before nor after.”
We must see directly into the thing in itself as itself, into the “suchness” of life: “responding to a call, listening to a murmuring stream, or to a singing bird, or any of our most ordinary everyday assertions of life.”
To do this: “We must first of all acquire a new point of view of looking at things, which is altogether beyond our ordinary sphere of consciousness.”
When we do: “The old world of the sense has vanished, and something entirely new has come to take its place. We seem to be in the same objective surrounds, but subjectively we are rejuvenated, we are born again.”
Yet this new “sphere of consciousness” must be grounded in our practical, ordinary lives.
“Psychologically there is a most intimate and profound relationship between a practical turn of mind and a certain type of mysticism . . . If mysticism is true its truth must be a practical one, verifying itself in every act of ours, and most decidedly, not a logical one.”
He goes on to quote the Zen poet Hokoji:
“How wondrously supernatural,
and how miraculous this!
I draw water, and I carry fuel.”
This too is what I love about Suzuki’s approach to Zen, his emphasis on work, and on work as love.
“For the soundness of ideas must be tested finally by their practical application. When they fail in this–that is, when they cannot be carried out in everyday life producing lasting harmony and satisfaction and giving real benefit to all concerned–to oneself as well as to others–no ideas can be said to be sound and practical.”
“The fact is that if there is any one thing that is most emphatically insisted upon by the Zen maters as the practical expression of their faith, it is serving others, doing work for others: not ostentatiously, indeed, but secretly without making others know of it. Says Eckhart [Christian mystic], ‘What a man takes in by contemplation he must pour out in love.’ Zen would say, ‘pour out in work,’ meaning by work the active and concrete realization of love.”
Throughout his essays he quotes generously from Zen masters and poets, and from Christian mystics and other Western thinkers and philosophers. Thus he weaves together common threads as well as pointing out differences between Zen and Western philosophies and spiritual practices.
Popova calls his essays “a moral toolkit for modern living, delivered through a grounding yet elevating perspective on secular spirituality.”
I would have to agree with that. Certainly I used it as a “toolkit” for my own own understanding of Zen and its application to ordinary life.
“Life as it is lived suffices. It is only when the disquieting intellect steps in and tries to murder it that we stop to live and imagine ourselves to be short of or in something. Let the intellect alone, it has its usefulness in its proper sphere, but let it not interfere with the flowing of the life-stream. If you are at all tempted to look into it, do so while letting it flow.
Zen . . . must be directly and personally experienced by each of us in his inner spirit. Just as two stainless mirrors reflect each other, the fact and our own spirits must stand facing each other with no intervening agents. When this is done we are able to seize upon the living, pulsating fact itself.
That is what I work to do:
To grasp the fact of life and its sufficeness with bare hands.
To “step barefoot into reality” as the poet puts it.
Although, too often this is forgotten in the busyness of things, the turmoil and petty pleasures that swirl around us all and steal our attention.
But I’m beginning to understand that even these upsets and petty pleasures have a place within the larger scheme of things, if only we would see them as such:
Oh, how wondrously supernatural,
and miraculous this!
The spilled cup, the dime novel.”
In a life that suffices, nothing is wasted.
I fell in love with the title of Milan Kundera’s novel “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” long before I ever read it. To me it evokes something unbearably joyful and rich, playful and profound.
So I was disappointed to find the novel itself, while a wonderful read, rich and playful and its own way, suggested a different interpretation of its title, a profound sadness at how fragile and transitory life is, how quickly its bright light fades.
I don’t see life that way at all. I mean, I see it, I understand why it may seem that way. But I don’t believe it.
To me, the beauty of this “lightness of being” is not that it is “unbearable” as in too horrible to bear, but “unbearable” as in too delicious to bear, to contain. It spills over.
I think that’s what I was trying to convey in my painting of the dancing poppies in a blue bowl. The beauty of the seemingly solid things that surround us, that make up our lives, is that they are not “heavy” or “static,” but constantly in motion, “dancing” as it were through time and space. Constantly dissolving itself and resolving into something else, similar, but not quite the same. The way the present moment dissolves and resolves instantaneously as we move through time.
There’s a wonderful analogy of the universe/reality by the physicist David Bohm. He sees reality and consciousness, what he calls the “implicate order,” as a “coherent whole, which is never static or complete but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment.” He likens this whole (all that ever was and ever will be) as a tightly woven ball of yarn, one infinite thread. Yet the way we perceive it through time and space is as if the ball of yarn is rolling away and unraveling before our eyes. We glimpse “what is” second by second, inch by inch, as it reveals itself to us in micro-bites and nano-seconds. It’s not that reality is actually unraveling, but that the illusion of its unraveling is how we come to comprehend it, see it, know it, love it. We are one with it all the while, even while it appears as something distinct and separate from our selves.
Another analogy that I love is Indra’s Net. Here the universe/reality is like an infinite net with a pearl at each interstice. Each pearl reflects every other pearl as well as the whole net itself. Each pearl contains within itself, as part of its own lustrous being, part of its own distinct individuality, all the others around it. The part contains the whole and vice versa.
This view of reality makes sense to me, not only from a scientific and spiritual viewpoint, but experientialy as well. I experience this every time I walk through the house and pass through one doorway after another and watch this interior landscape flowing past me, one room dissolving as a new one approaches. Every time I look out the window and take in the trees and hills and houses and sky and hold them in my mind’s eye even as I turn away. Practical, ordinary, experiences we all share.
I hold all those I love with me wherever I go as I know they do me. My breath is constantly circulating through my body as I breathe in the world around me and breath it out again. Nothing is still for even a second. All of life is in constant motion, the atoms within us and the galaxies swirling about our heads.
This is the unbearable lightness of being. Dancing poppies, dissolving bowl. Brush dipped in water and paint spilling images across a page. All this spilling together going on right here and now as you read this, my heart and mind spilling out to you.
What could be lighter, brighter, more playful and profound than that? This unbearably rich and joyful lightness of being.
These words from the Tao Te Ching are my mantra. They inspire me to identify with and live larger than what I appear to be individually. I turn to this felt-sense of self when I want to have a clearer, purer, more expansive sense of who I am at heart, when all that’s extraneous is removed.
The words refer to the Tao, that which is all-pervading, all-embracing, unchanging and unceasing. But I take them in a more personal way, as something to aspire toward–as a mother, a writer, a homemaker, artist, citizen. The world has much need of our mothering.
Each part of the mantra inspires me.
“Able to be” speaks to the capacity, the potentiality, of all humans, male or female, to aspire to something more, something beyond our current understanding of who we are or can be. “Something more”–that intangible, mysterious Other we yearn toward.
“Mother” is the symbol of all things round and fertile, life-giving and nurturing. Unconditional love and acceptance. The ground or source of being. The creator.It refers to inscrutable urge to turn ourselves inside out, to bring that which we love into fruition.
“World” refers to the entirety of creation, the universe and all that lies within. But it also refers to all that is yet to be. All those intangible, interior unwritten landscapes. It refers to that hidden nebulous thing within which longs to be brought into full, vibrant, elegant being.
The mantra leans toward the female but the male is not excluded (note how the words male and man are included within the words female and woman).It’s impetus is the male and female in blissful, rapturous union. The male rooted within the female, the female pierced by the male, the two wrapped together, one being. No “mother,” no “creator,” emerges without this union. No creation, no art, no worldly domain. No new life or exterior being.
There’s a sense of fullness here, within the mantra. A sense of completion, satisfaction, fulfillment. A sense of power and presence. Powerful presence. There’s nothing static or final about it, despite the fullness, the sense of completion. It doubles back to the “able to be” part: Capacity. Potentiality. Ever fertile. Ever reaching toward the intangible, the unknown, to bring it into being. Ever reaching toward that “something more” waiting to be born.
When I meditate on this mantra and feel its full potential within, feel myself as some reflection or expression of that woman “able to be the mother of the world,” I know I’ve come home. Home within myself, and within this world that embraces me.
In these seemingly dark and troubling times, I’m finding that reflecting on the following words of wisdom to be a soothing and enlightening antidote. It’s from a well-worn book that I’ve treasured over the years: Essays in Zen Buddhism, First Series, by D. T. Suzuki, first published in 1949. The following selected passages come from a liberal translation of a poem written by the Zen master Tao-hsin in the 6th century.
Inscribed on the Believing Mind-Heart
The Perfect way knows no difficulties
Except that it refuses to make preference:
Only when freed from hate and love,
It reveals itself fully and without disguise.
To set up what you like against what you dislike—
The is the disease of the mind:
When the deep meaning of the Way is not understood
Peace of mind is disturbed and nothing is gained.
Pursue not the outer entanglements,
Dwell not in the inner void;
When the mind rests serene in the oneness of things,
The dualism vanished by itself.
Tarry not with dualism,
Carefully avoid pursuing it;
As soon as you have right and wrong,
Confusion ensues, the mind is lost.
The two exist because of the one,
But hold not even to this one;
When the one mind is not disturbed,
The ten thousand things offer no offence.
The Great Way is clam and large-minded,
Nothing is easy and nothing is hard:
Small views are irresolute,
The more in haste the tardier they go.
Clinging never keeps itself within bound,
It is sure to go in the wrong way:
Let go loose, and things are as they may bee,
While the essence neither departs nor abides.
Obey the nature of things, and you are n concord with the Way,
Calm and easy and free from annoyance;
But when your thoughts are tied, you turn away from the truth,
They grow heavier and duller and are not at all sound.
Gain and loss, right and wrong—
Away with them all.
In the higher realm of True Suchness
There is neither “other” nor “self”:
When a direct identification is asked for,
We can only say, ‘Not two.”
The infinitely small is large as large can be,
When external conditions are forgotten;
The infinitely large is as small as small can be,
When objective limits are put out of sight.
One in all,
All in one—
If only this is realized,
No more worry about your not being perfect!
No more worry about the world we live in not being perfect. When was it ever?
No more worry about Hillary losing and Trump winning, when viewing the world from the larger perspective. His presidency will last at most 8 years. In a thousand years what will it matter?
What matters now are creating minds and hearts free from hate, free from clinging, free from worry. When have these negatives ever helped us create a better world?
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be working as hard as we can to create that better world–however we may envision it. It’s just that so many who don’t envision it the way we do are working just as hard.
The trick is to work without attachment to the result. For attachment creates clinging, opposition, frustration, hate and war when things aren’t going our way. And when it is going our way, it creates smugness, complacency, and self-righteousness superiority. And then, after all our striving, the world will turn, and everything is upside-down again.
How to end this vicious circle? Only within our own minds and hearts. It’s the only place we can truly reign, the only place where the good fight can truly be won–not in the outside world.
Working toward our goals with true “oneness” in mind, seeing others as ourselves, as “not-two,” we help free the world just a little bit from the hate and fear and selfishness and greed that cause so much pain and suffering. And the more who do so, the wider the influence. But it starts with us, with the One. We are that one.
So why do I keep forgetting this over and over and over again?
Why do I strive and cling, and then rebel when things don’t go my way?
When will I ever let go and just be?
To build a house in the world of man
And not to hear the noise of horse and carriage,
How can this be done?
When the mind is detached, the place is quiet.
I gather chrysanthemums under the eastern hedgerow
And silently gaze at the southern mountains.
The mountain air is beautiful in the sunset,
And the birds flocking together return home.
In all these things there is a real meaning,
Yet when I want to express it, I become lost in no-words.
“When the mind is detached”–how do we do that? How can I let go of wanting things to be the way I want them, of striving to make things the way I feel they should be instead of the way they are? And let go of all the frustration and upset that accompanies that struggle?
Yet underneath all that turmoil, when I let go and become lost in the “no-words” of “what is”, I experience that peace.
A deep calm underlies the surface struggle.
Just reading this poem brings me a measure of relief and the assurance that I too can find peace in the midst of chaos.
Where else is it to be sought or found?
Have you ever felt being in the flow of things? That optimum experience that many athletes and artists feel when time disappears and everything you are doing just seems to click effortlessly into place?
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has written extensively on flow, calls it “an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused state of consciousness” in which you “become, at least temporarily, part of a larger entity” or even “at one with the harmony of the cosmos.”
I’ve experienced this a few times for extended periods, but most often only for brief moments. The type of flow usually comes after long periods of meditation, usually when I’m outside, immersed in nature, when thoughts cease and sights and sounds flow through me. “Mountain-top” moments you might call them. But occasionally, more rarely, they happen in the “market place,” unexpectedly, in the middle of a busy day. I love it when that happens.
The first extended period of this came when we were sailing in the South Pacific. We were anchored in a cove off Tahiti and I went ashore to do some shopping.
I felt unusually light-headed, as if walking on air, or as if some filter called “me” had disappeared, and all that was left was this crystal clear awareness taking in everything and everyone I met—that “not-two” feeling I mentioned at the end of my last post on ‘Lightness of Being.” That sense stayed with me during the bus ride to Papeete and slowly dissipated as I went about my shopping.
I wrote a poem about the experience when I returned home, focusing on the bus ride. When sitting in the open-sided bus looking out at the passing landscape that sense of “flow” was especially intense.
On a Bus to Papeete
Wind through the window
Streaming through my hair
I in my stillness
Hurtling through the air
Trees and grasses and roads bending
Faces with flowers and houses blending
Objects like petals on a dark stream,
streaming through me, leave me
Clean and empty as a hollow reed, still
faintly tingling with the rhapsody of being.
It happened another time when we had returned home from our voyage and I was working as a manager of a small popular family restaurant. It was Sunday morning and we were slammed. Folks were lined up out the door waiting to be seated. The hostess was going crazy trying to keep up with the demand, scribbling down names and crossing them off, leading couples and families to tables, bringing out highchairs and crayons and coloring books, taking out trays of water.
The waitresses were buzzing around the room taking orders, pouring drinks, balancing up to six plates at a time in their arms. The poor busboys were clearing tables as fast as they could, wiping them down, hauling cartloads of dishes back to the kitchen. Things were at a fever high pitch of frantic in the back of the house too, as cooks called out orders, slapped slabs of bacon and sausage on the griddle, flipped pancakes, whisked eggs.
And I was everywhere at once, making the rounds, helping out as I moved along, taking around coffee, refilling cups, chatting up the guests, helping to clear tables and seat people, checking up on missing orders, lending a hand to the stack of avocados that needed peeling to make up a new batch of guacamole.
Everywhere at once, acutely attuned to what was needed in the moment and filling in the gap, just streaming along, light-headed, calm, exuberant, being all things at once and nothing at all, just letting the ebb and flow of activity move me along, marveling even while in the midst of it, at how natural, spontaneous, hyper-aware, hyper-alive I felt.
It lasted all morning and well into the early afternoon. Then as the stream of guests faded, and the restaurant began to empty, so did the “high,” that sense of flow, and I was gently landed back on the ground again, normal me, but not a bit tired and still very happy.
Now most of the time I feel I’m being carried along mid-stream, not “in the flow” at the center as I was then, but skirting it, somewhere between the flow and the swirling eddies at the edge of the stream. It’s a pleasant place to be, knowing the “flow” is right there beside me, ready to whisk me away again when I’m ready and things are just right.
But happy too that I’m avoiding for the most part those pesky eddies that try to pull me away into the shallows—-those petty, tiresome swirls, and fearful spins, and down-spouts of grief and anger that are always there, ready to pull me under and upside-down when they can. Usually I am able to scramble free easier than I have in the past, knowing that whatever trouble in the world they represent is more easily solved when I’m not tumbling around in the turmoil.
Mostly it’s a balancing act, trying to bring those mountaintop moments into the marketplace and finding myself somewhere in between. Not an unpleasant place to be.
[First posted this in May 2013 under a slightly different title. Things are rather chaotic in my life right now and I found this post a soothing reminder. Still seeking to bring those mountain-top experiences down into the market-place.]
Every time I write about nature I get deep into human consciousness. You can’t really separate the two. There is no “nature” – no way to identify, quantify, categorize, articulate, or understand it—apart from human consciousness, from how we think and talk about it.
We can’t study or explore or write about nature as something separate from ourselves, our own senses and experiences, our own thinking, perceiving, observations, experimentation. In that sense, nature is subjective, no matter how hard we try to objectify it.
This is not new, of course. Better writers and thinkers, from different disciplines, have explored this in more depth and detail that I can here.
This grand book the universe . . . is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it: without these, one wanders around in a dark labyrinth. —Galileo, Astronomer
We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation. –Edward Sapir, Linguist
If the world exists and is not objectively solid and preexisting before I come on the scene, then what is it? The best answer seems to that the world is only a potential and not present without me or you to observe it. . . . All of the world’s many events are potentially present, able to be but not actually seen or felt until one of us sees or feels. –Fred Allen Wolf, Physicist
Ah, not to be cut off,
not through the slightest partition
shut out from the law of the stars.
The inner—what is it?
if not intensified sky,
hurled through with birds and deep
with the winds of homecoming.
-–Rainer Maria Rilke, Poet
The sun shines not on us, but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing. –John Muir, Naturalist
At times I feel as if I am spread out over the landscape and inside things, and am myself living in every tree, in the splashing waves, in the clouds and the animals that come and go, in the processions of the seasons. There is nothing . . . with which I am not linked. –Carl Jung, Psychologist
See this rock over there? This rock’s me! –Australian Aborigine
But in the ordinary play of our day, we forget this. We experience everything outside ourselves as “not me,” “alien,” “other.” Even our own bodies are commonly experienced as “not me.” We say “my stomach growled,” or “my foot fell asleep,” or “my sinuses are acting up,” because they seem to act involuntarily, with a mind of their own, without our conscious consent. As does nature, and other people, and the things we create—toasters and cars and computers.
Separating the whole of life and existence into parts is a useful way of talking and thinking about things.
But too often we fail to put everything back together and see how interdependent it all is, how embedded we are in the whole, and the whole in us. When we fail to do so we lose a vital understanding of ourselves and the universe, and we act in ways that may be harmful to the whole.
The see the ocean in a drop of water, to see ourselves in everyone we meet, is not, as some think, merely a poetic and rosy way of looking at the world. It’s to see things as they actually are.
Original posted 8-9-2012
The novel I am working on is about relationships between mothers and children and all the ways that is expressed, from the most fearful and destructive to the most trusting and freeing. So I’ve been thinking a lot on this topic lately.
A passage that had a huge influence on my understanding of what “mothering” is, or could be, is found in the Tao Te Ching (CHXXV):
There was something complete and nebulous
Which existed before the Heaven and Earth,
Unchanging, standing as One,
Able to be the Mother of the World.
This Mother of the World, of course, is Tao, the all-pervading, all embracing, unchanging, and unceasing. It’s the thing that evolves, supports, nurtures, protects, and provides space for its “children,” all individual being.
A tall order for a mere human.
Yet something about that passage spoke to me as a woman and mother. It drew within me the desire to embrace my children in that spirit. And I found the mothering of my own two children improved immensely when I was able to step back and project in some way this more expansive sense of mothering that allows them to feel loved and supported without all the worries and anxieties and criticism and fear that accompany a mere human sense of mothering.
This mothering is not as personal, intense, or myopic, as the latter. It doesn’t hover, it doesn’t obsess, it doesn’t fret. It frees them “to be,” and is based on an immense sense of trust—in myself, in them, and in the universe at large. In God, or Tao, or some divine presence or higher power that embraces all of us, and gives each of us the capacity to mother each other.
This is not to say that I often meet this ideal. Far from it.
But I know that I mother my own children best and make fewer mistakes when I’m able to embrace them in that larger, more expansive way. And it feels more natural, less constricted, to mother that way.
I find this kind of mothering works best when all-inclusive. When I embrace all around me with the same mothering spirit. Not just my children, but all children, all people, all things—my home, my community, my work—even the individual objects that fill the space around me and the space outside my window. When I’m able to actually feel and identify with that potential, to “be” the “Mother of the World.”
Mothering, I learned, is a capacity that anyone can embrace: man, woman, child. You don’t have to be a mother, or have children of your own, to mother the world. When you adopt that stance, all things become your children to nurture, cherish, support, love—to help bring to their full potential.
Here’s wishing you all a lovely day of “mothering.”
What follows are the 20 favorite books that helped shape the way I think and write. It was hard to limit the list to twenty, and the only way I could do so was by including only one book per author, and by excluding works of poetry, and two foundational (religious) books, all of which I may write about in future posts.
But the twenty remaining are significant. I’ve listed them–more or less–by when they first appeared in my life, starting with fiction and moving to non-fiction: memoir, science, and philosophy.
Have you read any of these books? I’d be really interested in hearing your comments on them. I’d also love to hear what books influenced you the most.