Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Crossing

The Crossing

Look: that’s me on the right
with my daughter’s eldest daughter.
We sit on sacks of grain, she and I,
in the white Siberian light,
afloat between the brightness of the water
and the brightness of the wide and hollow sky.

Now we near the shore.
The dip and splash of oars
breaks the slow silence
of the river's run,
stirs spiralled mud in the shallows:
another crossing nearly done.

I have crossed over so many times.
My Oka. Not so great 
as the Ob or the Don, I know,
but still my river, borrowed from God,
born from distant Altai snow
through winter's ice and summer's heat.

‘Are you thirsty, Babushka?’ someone asks.
But I’m used to thirst.
I’m grateful for the thirst
That lets me know I’m still alive.

I’m grateful for the strong arms of the rowers
and for my granddaughter’s quiet company
beside me in the white and silent sun.
I’m grateful to the sown, and to the sowers,
I’m grateful for this harvest-seat of grain.

I’m grateful for my tired eyes,
For the tiredness of my body
that tells me I’ll be grateful for
another crossing soon to come
towards a yet-untrodden shore
beneath another brighter sun......

Painting: On the River Oka, by Abram Efimovich Arkhipov, 1890

Friday, February 22, 2013

"To Thine Own Self Be True"

When the world was much younger than it is now, and the gods were less shy about making themselves visible to us mortals, there was a king called Pygmalion. The king had fallen hopelessly (and inappropriately) in love with no less a being than Aphrodite, the goddess of love. However much he begged her, she refused (naturally enough) to sleep with him, until at last in utmost despair he fashioned an exquisite ivory likeness of her, placed it in his bed, and lay down beside it.
When Aphrodite saw him lying there lovelorn, with only the embrace of cold ivory for company, she at last took pity on the king. Her spirit then entered the sculpture, imbuing it with the seed of life which it is the grace of a goddess to give. With a king's kiss the transformation began, as beneath Pygmalion's wondering touch hard ivory became yielding female flesh. And this is how the carved likeness became transformed into a living woman, who in later retellings of the story acquired the name of Galatea.

Whether or not Pygmalion found happiness with his Galatea is for us to speculate upon. What we both recognize and respond to in the story is the way in which the king projected all his fantasies and his longings, not onto a real person, but instead onto a mere image which he himself had created. The heart of the story contains the powerful recognizable truth: that we often do not see another for who they truly are, but rather as we would wish them to be. And so it happens that, like Pygmalion, we create someone in our own image. 

This can have its appeals - but when it happens within a relationship, it also can have its dangers. A top sportsman might find it flattering to his ego to have a supermodel on his arm, but there still is a human being beneath those supermodel looks who might not be seen for who she truly is - either by him or by the hotly-pursuing paparazzi. But the story of Pygmalion's fixation with a created image can also apply to more spiritual 'sculptures' which we create - even unconsciously.

We all have our own ideas about 'God', both according to our beliefs (or lack of them) and to our personal views within those beliefs. But just how difficult it can be to let go of these thought forms is demonstrated by the mystic Meister Eckehart when he cried: 'Oh, God, help me to release myself from God!' He understood that unless he could let go of all the preconceived images of God which he held, and so make himself a receptive 'empty vessel', he would never be able to draw close to the true nature, the true being of God.

And it even can be the case that we create Pygmalion-style 'sculptures', not just of others, or of the forms in our beliefs, but of ourselves. This could happen because we wish to project a certain image of ourselves to others, or because we seek to please someone - perhaps a partner - by being who they wish us to be, rather than who we truly are. And so we turn ourselves into sculpted 'statues', for the sake of wishing to be more accepted and loved by another. For this reason I can't help wondering if Galatea was herself truly happy. After all, she was the living creation of the wish fulfilment fantasy of Pygmalion, and (assuming that the story has its own inner reality) must have wondered about her own true identity.

"To thine own self be true" advises Polonius in farewell to his departing son Laertes in Shakespeare's Hamlet. It is the best - and at times the hardest - advice to follow!

Drawing 'Pygmalion' by Edward Burne-Jones

Saturday, February 16, 2013

My Own Name

My Own Name

I wind myself in braided vines
winds from the sun, and starry fields       
and clothe myself with woven sounds
that a royal child shields.

I seek to pluck the ripest fruit
whose coursing sap runs through my veins
and through the canopy of leaves
I'll sing the colours of refrains. 

Towards the meadowlands I turn
where wild flowers and soaring lark
spread fragrant air and airy song
above the azure lake. 

And I will plant a future glade
in raw grey earth and stable ground
and count the numbered grains of sand
and smooth the stones to pebble-round. 

The streams and rivers I release
to flow towards the mountain crest
where sun and moon will stand as one
and the winged horse finds its rest. 

Then garlanded with mountain songs
of eagle's cry and feathers roan
I touch the sky and voice at last
the name which is my own.

painting: Birth of Venus by Odilon Redon

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Transforming Journey

The Journey of Inner Transformation from Suffering to Freedom

Suffering is a universal human condition. We do our very best to avoid it but very few of us can. Buddha talked at length about suffering. He called it "dukkha" which includes the entire spectrum from dissatisfaction and discomfort to intense pain and suffering. He discovered a way to end suffering and find lasting peace - a peace he calls Nirvana. Many sages and spiritual masters have touched upon this human condition. Although suffering is an unwelcome condition it can develop in us a greater depth of soul and gives us the capacity for deeper compassion. Suffering acts as a crucible in which we undergo inner transformation, a transformation that shatters the very core of who we think we are and opens the doors to deeper perception and realization of what may be called our true Self within.

We do not need to intentionally seek to suffer to experience transformation.  The way to transformation may be practiced without the presence of suffering. Suffering can lead to inner transformation. This transformation can happen right in the midst of suffering. Such an experience is often revelatory and some call such experiences "awakenings." These changes can lead to further awakenings and life itself becomes a journey of transformation. It is a spiritual journey, as each awakening shatters one's previous concept of self and allows discovery of deeper levels of being. It is a journey that leads us to that place within which reveals our true nature or true Self, that place in which we are at the matrix of creation, and the fountainhead of peace, love, joy and freedom, and these states are emanations of the true Self and not separate emotions. 

Suffering is invariably caused by the "desire gap." This is the gap between what we want (desire) and what is. What we want can be anything - an event, a person, a set of specific circumstances, material things, a physical condition, etc., but they are all personal mental and emotional projections. Of course, what "is" happens to be the undeniable "reality" in front of us that we find hard to accept. This is the seed of suffering - the gap that exists between what is and what we want. 

When one has reached a point of being utterly exhausted from suffering, and arrives at juncture where there appears to be no exit point, no escape route, and the mind offers no solution, it is in this state of existential crisis that a transformative opportunity arises. It does involve the act of stopping the mental and emotional bicycle that we have been on to look squarely into the face of suffering. 

For one moment we must stop, completely stop, and step back from the emotions and thoughts.  Stopping leads to recognition, to simply place full attention on one's feelings and thoughts. Recognition is awareness, and awareness requires stopping even for a brief moment. One's suffering must be confronted squarely. Rather than turning away from it, look into its face with courage by quietly placing attention on it. In order to transcend it one must accept it and embrace it.

Our suffering may consist not only of the pain itself but also the desire for the suffering to cease. We may be overwhelmed by both pain and desire.  It may feel impossible to stop. We feel overwhelmed because we are identifying intimately with our thoughts and emotions. However, know that we are deeper than any thought we could think of.  We are deeper than any emotion we may feel, whether that emotion is sublime or ugly. Stopping does not mean rejection or repression of our thoughts and emotions. Rather it means letting them be and observing them as a witness. Awareness requires us to focus our full attention on what is happening inside us. By doing so we open a small gateway to our heart of hearts, and there is the softest whisper that may be heard inviting us to enter.

The road of suffering divides into two paths, and both paths lead to transformation. It is up to the individual which path to take. It is a personal choice. The first path is that of acceptance. The second path is that of release. Both involve an element of surrender in slightly different ways. However, the end is the same.

The path of acceptance requires resolve. The emotions of suffering are wholly accepted and embraced. Accept and embrace the suffering - even if the condition of suffering is for the rest of one's life - say yes to it. As Christ accepted his crucifixion and his cross, embrace one's own cross in an act of surrender. From this surrender the suffering will be transmuted to liberation. The path of release requires courage. In the path of releasing, one needs to release the desire in the "desire gap." It may also be described as surrendering, surrendering in the sense of letting go, of the one prime desire inherent in the "desire gap."

In the path of release, by giving up what you desire most of all there is not only a shift of one's sense of self, but a major falling away of one's identity. This crumbling of identity also occurs with the path of acceptance. If you accept what you once deemed unacceptable then this impacts upon one's sense of self. However, this is not to be feared. In the falling  away of one's perceived identity is the realization that the identity was not real to begin with. It was self-created over time, supported by family, friends, peers and society in general. The imaginary construct of self was held in place by a myriad opinions, judgments, and thoughts - all of them insubstantial. This false identity is sometimes called the ego or the small self. Upon this realization we suddenly experience an overwhelming sense of freedom and joy. We have peeled away layers of illusion to recognize something in us that is more real. This is an awakening to one's true nature or one's true Self. It may be a small and gentle glimpse or an overwhelming experience - again it does not matter. It is the end of your world as you know it and it is the beginning of your journey, the journey of transformation.

"There is a place within, even in deep sadness, where you are totally whole and complete." 
~ Rumi

paintings by Kahlil Gibran

My special thanks to Joseph for writing this post at my request.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Longing

The Longing

I am dreaming
I am dreaming everything –
and everything which happens to me
happens because I dream it.
My dreams are not always the dreams
which I wish to have – 
but they are the dreams
which I choose to have.
They are my dreams,
both good and bad –
for that is my choice
and to imagine that there is no choice
is also a choice.
There is always a choice –

I am longing
I am longing for everything –
although I do not always know
what it is that I long for.
Neither do I need to know – 
for not knowing is for me
the most precious longing of all.
This is the longing of my heart’s secrets
and my heart does not tell me everything – 
neither would I wish it to
for I will know all these things one day
when I awaken.

Pastel  Portrait of Emma © by David Bergen

Friday, February 1, 2013


To know the ways:
The wide rivers’ courses,
the secret trails
untrodden by the steps
of those who walk without seeking,
the unseen traceries
left by the flights of birds
like lace across the sky:
For this she journeys 
with the makers of maps
and of history,
plotting her own charts
invisible to others:
She crosses inner meridians,
strange horizons,
new wildernesses of the heart.