A man is taking a walk. He comes to a wooden fence with a chalk circle and in the very center of the circle is an arrow. He looks further and sees several more–similar arrows right inside the “bulls-eye.”
He asks several people who walk by who is this remarkable archer, but no one admits to it– until he asks a young girl.
“Sure, that’s me doing it”, she says.
“Remarkable” exclaims the man, “Could you demonstrate?”
She shrugs her shoulders and says, “Sure.”
The girl takes up the bow and arrow, shoots the arrow into the fence, then walks up and draws a circle around it.
Koans 2: Thinking and Not Thinking
Sometimes we think something is mysterious when it needn’t be-and wouldn’t be-with a little more information.
A koan is a question without an obvious answer, a paradox meant to jolt you out of logical patterns of thought. Sometimes the koan is an enigma in your mind but not inanyone else’s. For a long time I had a personal koan going on. It went something like this: “Why is the logo for the active-clothing company “Under Armour” the capital letter H?” There’s no H in “Under Armour”!
That koan was a koan only to me. I never got around to asking anyone else the question and I’m glad I didn’t. Most people would have known the answer without giving it much thought, but my thought-stream can take me to some strange places sometimes.
There’s this thing that happens when I run. I’m jogging down the sidewalk and notice that, without trying, I have adjusted my stride so that I am not stepping on the cracks. I do it without thinking, so it can’t be attributed to superstition (my mother’s back and all) ,unless it’s possible to be subconsciously superstitious. And then, when I come to a cross-street, I can look yards ahead and make a subtle, only semi-intensional, alteration in my gait. My strides remain smooth and equal, but they’re spaced so that when I get to the curb, I effortlessly step over, not on top, of it. There’s no time for any measurement or calculation in my mind–it just happens effortlessly, like falling into a stream of synchronicity, where my thoughts play no part and would only interfere if they did.
The same kind of thing can happen –I wish it happened more often– when I play the piano. I don’t actually “play” the piano, but I took lessons for a couple of years when my daughter, Elizabeth, was younger and was taking them herself. I was never very good, and these days I don’t practice enough to improve, but on a good day I can sit down and play Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” from memory. The weird thing is, it’s not like the memory is in my brain; more like it is in my fingers. If I’m rusty and get out the sheet music to look at while I play, I make more mistakes than I do without the music. If I just start playing without concentrating too hard, my fingers, completely on their own, seem to find the right keys at the right time (as if the “Force is with me”) and the result sounds almost like….well, “Fur Elise.”
I suspect everyone occasionally has similar moments of feeling in step with some deeper rhythm. My son says he feels it when clinging to a rock face on one of his mountain climbs and I can sometimes get there when I’m in the cath lab, guiding a wire down a tortuous coronary artery. I used to play music overhead when doing a heart cath, but now I prefer quiet, so that no part of me is somewhere else.
I wonder what’s behind all that? I know about “muscle-memory,” but that seems like only a partial explanation. There must be many theories of why it feels the way it does. To me it seems sort of primordial, a throw-back to a time when we were running across the savanna instead of on sidewalks, when our actions came more naturally or instinctually. Or, could it be a sign of our untamed nature, our connection to the wild things whose actions aren’t governed by so much human contemplation?
We can’t always think ourselves through a situation or talk ourselves out of one, but we can try to fall into the stream of where the universe is heading, with or without us. Maybe there is a current of energy that lies below all things and that “going with the flow” is a real possibility; that the flow is something you can be more or less aware of, and drift in or out of, depending on how well you are listening. Caroline says, “You have to be quiet in the mind to hear God talking to you,” and Thoreau said that “Time is just the stream I go a fishin’ in.”
Maybe it’s something like that, except the steam consists not only of time–but everything else, too, and that what it comes down to is to paddle with the current, not against it, and to watch how a tree handles the wind.
Thinking and Overthinking:
Koans emphasize the importance of asking questions, but they also teach that thinking might not be enough and might lead nowhere. As any four-year-old can tell you, the answer to any “why” question just leads to more whys. Understanding isn’t everything, nor the endpoint of anything, because you eventually have to get yourself out of your head and put something into practice.
There is a famous parable told by Buddha, another story about arrows. He said that if one comes across a person who has been shot by an arrow, one does not spend time wondering about where the arrow came from or the caste of the individual who shot it, or analyzing what type of wood the shaft is made of or the manner in which the arrow was fashioned. Rather, one should focus immediately on only one thing—pulling out the arrow.
I tend to overthink and need a frequent reminder that it rarely accomplishes anything. My friend Arla often reminds me that I need to “let it go.” I know she’s right— I’ve see the movie, “Frozen”, after all—but singing about it is easier than doing it.
Thinking and Doing:
“There is only Do or Not Do. There is no Try.”
Imagine a man on a bicycle. We know for sure three things about him.
-at some time he got on
-at some time he will get off
-between those times he must keep moving or he will fall off
Life circumstances for Caroline and me are stable at the moment, but they haven’t always been that way, and we know the only thing for certain about the future is that it is different than the present. From our position of relative calm, we have watched some people who we are close to—family and friends- -and feel like we are witnessing life at its most tumultuous, a vantage similar to Marco Island’s when the eye of Irma passed over it.
My daughter Holly has been going through a difficult time. Not long ago, she said that she thought it would be nice if she could live life as a dog, provided she could choose a good master. I knew what she meant — take out any concern about where your next meal is coming from, or when you will take your next walk, and a dog-s life could be pretty carefree.
True, dogs aren’t burdened with the angst that humans are. In the movie, “A Dog’s Life,” the dog says, “In my life I always had so many questions, but it always came back to the same one….How do I get a drink of water?”
If, as a dog, you have fewer things to worry about, you also miss out on stuff. Being carefree is overrated. The best part of being human lies in what we care about and who we care for-and how we show our caring. A dog’s love can be intense, but it’s fairly one-dimensional. As humans, the higher states of consciousness that allow us to love with more depth and meaning are the same ones that make us aware of our vulnerability. Heart strings and heart aches come from the same place; grief and loneliness the price we pay for love.
You have to be ready for whatever comes, because come it will. Anything at all can follow anything at all. There is an ebb and flow to most people’s life circumstances, and all you can do is try to ride it like the man on his bicycle–keep moving so you don’t fall off. To live life fully is to treat it as you would a wave it the ocean as you stand knee-deep in the surf. If you resist it, you will get knocked over. If you put your head down and dive in you somehow come out the other side.
You just have to keep moving at all costs and not get stuck or bogged down. Joan Baez said that, “Action is the antidote to despair.” Albert Camus, the French existentialist and author, said about an artist friend, “It is not the paintings I like, it is the painting.”
Action is the thing. Consider what’s important now and jump in. Be willing to take chances and find a truth that you are able to live or to die for. Camus used the analogy of approaching life as if you were jumping on an untamed stallion with the commitment to hang on; not try to tame it, but go wherever it should run or jump. He said to compare that to a man who falls asleep in a hay-wagon. He, too, could be considered a “horseman,” although he is just going passively wherever the horse decides to take him; no excitement, and his only commitment is to not fall out of his seat.
Journeys When They Separate-Update:
Different worlds: Caroline doing yoga vs Jeff doing yoga
In my last post I explained that Caroline and I are not communicating very much while she is at Zuna Yoga teacher training in Bali, so I don’t have very much information about her. I think her days are very full. In fact, I know she is working her tail off, physically and mentally, and that she is exhausted at the end of the day when she comes back to her little house and falls into bed. I think she likes it there and that she is learning and growing. The picture of her class is from the Zuna Yoga Facebook page. She is in the back on the left.
As for me, I decided that I should change my daily schedule so that I wasn’t just going though my usual routine—absent Caroline. I once suggested to Caroline that we try to adapt a daily schedule like the Buddhist monks and nuns we met in Tibet when we were there. My logic was that, since we get up early and go to bed early anyway, we could make a minor adjustment and follow their example— which is to go to bed very early and get up very, very early— and see what that was like. I said that we could use the quiet time in the morning for doing whatever things we always intend to do but don’t, because they get lost in all the other activities of the day.
That suggestion got vetoed. Caroline did not want to live like a monk.
Neither do I, but I’m checking into it this month. I went on the internet to find out what the Dalai Lama’s days are like and see if I could follow his schedule for a few weeks. The answer to that question turned out to be no, but I’m doing a modified version.
The D.L. gets up at 0300 and meditates for three hours. My first thought was—that’s pretty early and a lot of mediating. I’m getting up at 0330 and meditating, or doing yoga, for 30 minutes. Then, like the D.L., I do a little reading or writing. He takes a short walk in his garden before breakfast; I do the elliptical. Buddhist monks do not eat anything after twelve-noon. I am trying to go ahead and eat whenever I am hungry, but the problem is that I am never hungry, so it amounts to the same thing. As far as the Dalai Lama’s schedule overall, I still have to practice Cardiology and he doesn’t, so, in truth, his schedule and mine wouldn’t recognize each other if they met on the street.
The morning quiet time is pleasant. They say that for every meditation session or yoga practice you should have an intention and make that your focus. My intention this month is Equanimity—calm emotions when dealing with problems or stress, an evenness of mind . My focus of awareness this month is Gratitude.
On the opposite end of the day from morning quiet time —and other end of the spectrum of types of things to fill my time—is my evening attempt to catch up on some old movies. My kids have told me that I am missing out because I never watched “Fight Club.” I’ve tried to convince Caroline to watch it with me but, for some reason, she has thought it was about fighting, so she has been resistant.
Other than some short texts, or an Emoji now and then, Caroline and I have not had contact. From her perspective, I can understand it. Her solo adventure is exactly right for her. If she weren’t solo, it wouldn’t be her adventure. I know all the ways I would mess it up if I were a part of it. I also know that she is the one who is all alone over there, while I am here surrounded by home, friends and family. I figure that, no matter how great it is over there for her, there are times that she’s feeling homesick. I hope she does.
I am conflicted about the no, or little, texting rule. In my opinion, this is a long time to have no contact with your spouse, but I can see why they came up with the ground rule and why it was natural for Caroline to want to follow it. It’s probably the right thing for me, too, though I hate to admit it. Everybody who texts knows that it is fraught with potential misinterpretation and misunderstanding. And texts, even phone calls, are a tease. They don’t really help me that much and are a distraction for Caroline. I know I should just give her the space she needs and be OK with not texting….. Right?
I have honored that plan, but not flawlessly. There is a half- hour window at the end of her day when Caroline is back at her house and getting ready for bed. If there is going to be a text, it will be then. Every morning at that time, I am sitting in an empty room somewhere at the hospital, the Viber App on my phone turned on, determined not to be the one to text first. One day last week, I sat in silent anticipation in my car—like my twelve-year-old self sitting out on a cold, winter’s night, waiting for someone to turn on the Christmas decoration lights, not knowing for sure if they will, or when. I watched the app for awhile before I figured Caroline had gone on to bed. I put the phone in my pocket and went on into the hospital, and as I entered the ICU I heard the Viber notification go off. I quickly took the phone out of my pocket and ducked into an empty room to read the text from Carol, “Hey, I miss you, but I think you butt-called me.”
This month Caroline and I are both in classrooms of a sort, but they are very different. My sister, Laura, put it this way: “Carol is growing through serene experiences; she is growing in the clouds. Carol is immersing herself in a spiritual world to better understand the physical. You, too, are a spiritual being, but you are growing in the trenches, while immersed in this physical world.” Hmm. I’ll have to think about that one, but I agree with Laura that whatever growth is taking place with me, it’s at ground level.
I don’t think Carol has been living in the clouds, but I know she is in for a culture shock when she comes home.
Serenity has not been the prevailing feeling for me. I’ve had any number of emotions while being so disconnected from Caroline. They run the spectrum, actually. One thing I know is that I have been given another stupid learning opportunity, a chance to take a closer look inside and confront my own emotional baggage—what Caroline refers to as “the basement of things.” I wouldn’t want to do this and not be a little better for it so I’m working hard. I know what I am supposed to do— I wrote about in my last post—step back from the emotion and the drama and observe them just like I would any other thing here on planet earth. Treat my emotions like inclement weather, like how I can stand out in the middle of a storm and notice the wind and the rain blowing in my face –but not let those things change who I am or what I do.
As it turns out, I am not so great at doing that. The same could be said for most of the other topics I have presented in these posts. I am a world-class over-thinker, but I know that I am a better person when I am not. I know that I need to be able to let go, to be mindful, to live joyfully in the present moment, to be able to objectify my feelings and not let them rule the day, to accept change, and when feeling stressed, to be able to relax and release. None of these things do I do consistently or well; but I know it takes practice, and that’s what I am doing. I think when it’s all over, I will have grown, too, though maybe not as much as Caroline; and I’ll have her to thank. I hope I am acquiring my own share of self-knowledge, but I am far from “self-actualized,” and what I’ve been writing about is coming from personal experience; not as an authority on anything, but as a fellow struggler.
The Spiritual Journey:
In these dispatches, I include a lot of Eastern, mostly Buddhist, teaching. This is a brief explanation of why.
It started when I was sending dispatches from Nepal, a Buddhist and Hindu country. It is also because many of those teachings have, for me, been a source of wisdom. The time that I have spent with some of the the Eastern teachings and practices have helped me in my personal search for meaning and, interestingly, they have helped me on my spiritual journey, drawing me closer to, not farther away from, the God I have always worshipped. My traditional Christian faith is where I started from, and it is what grounds me still, but I believe there are other pathways to connecting with the divine, pathways that are complementary, not in competition. When it comes to wisdom, I want to be open to it, whatever the source. In these dispatches, I’m just passing on some observations and a little of what I have learned.
To me, there is no conflict, and many people share that opinion. My understanding is that Buddhists don’t actually worship Buddha; he never asked or expected them to and told his followers flat-out that he was not a god to be worshipped. His disciples once asked him directly, “Are you a god, a saint, a spirit?” He said, “No, I am none of those things. I am just a-wake.” Buddha said that he didn’t come to explain the the meaning of life, that he would leave that to others. He said that he came simply to teach how we can relieve our suffering and the suffering of others. He said this, “These things matter most—How did you love? Did you learn to let go?” Many consider Buddhism to not be a religion at all but a philosophy or a form of psychology, and Buddha the first psychologist. Many aspects of Buddha’s teaching are shared with modern Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and are highly practical in daily life.
To me, when Buddhists do speak of God— of whom they worship—it is the same one that I worship at the Presbyterian Church on Sunday and on my own during the rest of the week. When I hang prayer flags or turn a prayer wheel, those prayers are going out to the God of Abraham, the Father of Jesus–just in a different package than the one others might use to send their prayers Heavenward. It seems that there are just a lot of different ways of trying to connect, probably because there are a lot of different kinds of people who are trying to (Emerson said, “Nature doesn’t rhyme Her children”) and God wants that relationship as much as we do. With the Eastern traditions, it is best to feel God, rather than think him, but I believe that the God I read about in scripture is the same one I draw close to when I meditate. Nancy Wison Rice said that “all seekers of salvation, deliverance, Nirvana, Heaven, moksha, samadhi, satori, truth, or even merely meaning, are working with the same materials,” and Lord Baden Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, said that “There is only one leader, but many ways to follow him.”
– Karjol Karki-Hindu Mahendra Bhattarai-Christian
(Presbyterian Church in Nepal. Cross made of wood from doors of USA church. )
That’s how I see it–and what I choose to believe; that God is, among other things, transcendent, and resides above and beyond our different methods of seeking and connecting with him. There are many difficulties in how to put it all that together, and wiser people than I have pondered questions of how to reconcile the differences. So I just choose to focus on the commonalities, to believe that, in God, there is some type of fundamental unity that is beyond the limits of my understanding.
I think it helps to not insist on certainty. It ultimately comes down to a matter of faith and taking personal responsibility for what I choose to believe. If I wait for proof, I’ll be waiting a long time. I accept that I don’t know the answers to some of the big questions, so it’s a matter of making a conscious choice to accept the uncertainty. That’s okay with me, because of certitude I am usually very cautious. I once heard someone say, “ Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything.” I get that. Elie Wiesel had the same sentiment when he advised, “associate with those who are seeking the Truth, but avoid those who have found it.”
Compare Wiesel to Frank Loyd Wright, whose self assurance and certainty in his beliefs was legendary. Wright was good at designing buildings, but he wasn’t perfect. No one could tell him that, though. One time a client complained that the roof of his house had a leak and that water was dripping on his desk. Wright’s curt rely was, “Move your desk.”
With God, it seems to me, some things are unknown and unknowable, and they are meant to be that way. I think Job is with me on that one. But I do believe that God, the Cosmic Consciousness, the loving Universal Spirt, is watching and waiting for us to enter into whatever relationship we are led to be in with him. And I believe he is patient.
So did Henry David Thoreau who, when nearing death, was asked by a friend if he had made his peace with God answered, “I didn’t know we had quarreled.
The Quiet Journey:
I have written more in these dispatches about meditation than prayer, but I think prayer and meditation are essentially the same thing—where you simply allow the mind to get quiet, listen, and draw near to God. It takes practice. You can’t force your mind to be silent. That would be like trying to smooth the ripples on a water’s surface with a flatiron. Water becomes calm and clear only when it is left alone.
Meditating is not something that was taught to me in my Christian upbringing, but it might have been. Eastern traditions don’t have a lock on meditation. I didn’t find my way to the practice through the Christian tradition, but some do. A few years ago my brother-in-law, Shawn Gary, went to live in a Benedictine monastery for awhile. They practiced silence and regular meditation, even chanting.
Meditation, then, is another one of the values shared among multiple traditions. It might the one thing I’ve gotten right this month (partly because you can’t really do meditation “wrong”).
All I know is that coming out of meditation is when I feel most filled with loving kindness toward others, and toward myself.
The Sacred Spot and the Decisive Moment:
A few years ago I was hiking though the Grand Canyon with some of my family. On the morning of the second day, halfway down to the Colorado River, we veered of the main trail to visit Ribbon Falls, a small grotto where crystal clear water sparkled in the sun and cascaded down onto lush, moss-covered mounds of travertine and into a cool, glistening pool below. It was a beautiful place, but we stayed only a few minutes before heading on our way. A short time later, my sister Laura told me that a guide with another group told her that Zuni legend held that this is where the creation of the world began. Really? We were like, “I wish we would have known that while we were there.” The place was lovely, but we didn’t know it was so important to the history off the cosmos. I guess you never know.
Something similar happened a few years before that when Caroline, Adam and I were visiting a small monastery that clung to the side of a mountain in Tibet. The resident monk took us to a small grotto that could only be entered through a narrow, one-way passage. After we all took our turn and emerged out the opposite doorway, the monk told us that if, while you were in there, you made a wish, that it would surely come true. Caroline went back for a second visit.
There must be a lot of places that hold some universal but under-appreciated significance, spots more sacred than we realize at the time. We should watch for them, and we should also create sacred spaces ourselves.
Caroline and Jeff’s rooftop sacred space
On the streets of Paris in the nineteen thirties, Henri Cartier-Bresson pioneered the art of the candid photograph. He famously said that to take a good picture, you must capture the “decisive moment.” He explained that “Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera…the Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”
Last week I received a letter from a patient. In it, he said that he was writing to thank me because it had been five years since the night that he came to the emergency department with symptoms of a heart attack. Soon after he arrived, we took him to the cath lab and opened the blocked artery. He recovered and went home. For me, treating someone having a heart attack is never routine; but that moment was way more decisive for him than for me. I remember that it happened, but none of the particulars of how; he remembers every detail and said that he was writing to me on “the fifth anniversary of the night that you saved my life.”
There is a scene of a decisive moment in the movie “Grand Canyon” where Mack tells the story of when he was saved from being hit by a passing bus as he was about to step off the curb onto a busy street in LA. The serendipity was that the stranger who pulled him back in the nick of time, and then mysteriously disappeared into the crowd, was wearing a Pittsburg Pirates baseball cap. The Pirates were Mack’s team when was a kid.
Recognizing the decisive moment is one thing–then the question is what to do with it. In another scene from the same movie, Claire is arguing with her husband about keeping an abandoned child she found on the street when she was out jogging. “I believe that there is a reason I found her…….something has happened. You can’t go back and make it not happen. Some kind of connection has been made, and it has to be played out. What if there are miracles? Maybe we don’t have any experience with miracles so we are slow to recognize them.” Mack and Claire keep the child.
Like with the sacred spaces, we should be awake to the decisive moments in life, so they don’t slip by unnoticed.
The Flower’s Journey:
“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
Henry David Thoreau
The words “Unlock Yourself” were printed on a T-shirt I saw in Pokhara, Nepal.
I spent some time with a couple of seeds this month—Iris and Abraham Sanders. I was immersed in the exuberance that is early childhood, and also reminded of why parenting of that phase of it is best visited on the young. It’s pretty exhausting. Those kids never stop moving. They are just brimming with “possibility.” It’s all in front of them now, and I am curious of whom they will grow up to be.
My other granddaughter, Jayla, is farther along, and what is amazing about her is how much she has changed in the course of just a couple of years. She is a “flower” that is on the verge of blossoming. She’s not a kid anymore; she’s a young lady and a dancer.
I remember when Jayla was younger, listening to Carol and her as they watched a Disney movie together. This was “Sleeping Beauty,” not one of the more recent “girl power” movies. Carol and I took note of the the dated stereotype— innocent young girls wishing for, and being saved by, a handsome prince. Suddenly, Carol chimed in, saying to Jayla, “We have to talk about this. Today you don’t need a man to slay the dragon or make your way. You can slay your OWN dragon and make your OWN way. And maybe then you will meet someone nice along the way.”
Carol knows that flowers, and grandchildren, need some tender guidance to blossom as they should. But, you can’t force a flower, or a person, to bloom. You just have to tend to the soil and let them grow with their own intelligence.
Before Caroline left for Bali, she toId me, “I’ve always been a late bloomer, but at least I bloom.” I don’t know about the “late part.”She has always seemed like a good bloomer to me, and I know for sure she’s not a quitter (if she were then she would be home by now). They don’t talk in terms of “blooming” at the Zuna Yoga teaching training course, but what happens at Azadi Yoga Retreat is described by many of the graduates as “transformative.” Blooming, blossoming, transforming— it’s all good—even though, to me, Caroline was fine the way that she was before. I suspect she’ll describe it as simply moving toward her true self, or the person she wants to be— or a coming into awareness of who that is. I look at her as being in a constant process of becoming–as we all should be.
I like to grow flowers. Our dahlia garden was a big success this summer, but the orchids always give me the most satisfaction. You can have a relationship with an orchid, and need to, if you want them to thrive. On a day that I was feeling particularly lonely, Caroline sent me a picture of orchids on Azadi property in Bali. I liked that. It told me that when she saw the orchids, it spurred in her mind some thoughts of me. I also like to think that those orchids are somehow on my team, and that they are keeping a watch over Caroline for me.
Oh, time! be slow! it was a dawn ago
I was a child dreaming of being grown,
a noon ago I was with children of my own;
and now it’s afternoon – and late-
and they are grown and gone.
Ruth Bell Graham
This month, it has felt to me like the days are passing at a glacial rate. I have wanted time to pass quickly, but I should never want that. My Grandmother used to tell us not to “wish your life away.” We don’t sing so we can get to the end of the song; if we did then the best orchestras would be the ones that played the fastest.
Life is good and it is brief—so, Time, be slow.
Every day is a gift to be savored; all change is eventually for the better; and every day is a new beginning.
I think I’ll leave it at that for this series of blog posts.. I know that they are too long. It should be obvious by now that I write them mostly for myself, but I hope someone else is reading them, too. I know they are not the standard format, nor a recommended one. Even the Help Desk on WordPress told me they were too long.
I guess the Blog is a type of journey for me. It has been a welcome distraction while Caroline was away, but I know that when I spend too much time writing, I am not exactly living in the present.
For those who have traveled this far with me —thank you. I wish for all of you peace in your bheart, serenity and equanimity in your mind, and that you be happy on the inside—the kind of happiness that does not depend on what “happens” on the outside.
Caroline wrote this on Facebook as she left home:
“May God’s Light shine brightly on each of you. May you soar among the clouds.”
Wonderful, received and reading it.Many thanks,Thomas
Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.