Thursday, October 27, 2011

Breaking and Entering

The Kingdom of God shows up in the oddest places. Like the southernmost stretch of Broadway, just north of Wall Street.

It’s pretty rag-tag. Twenty-somethings with cooler piercings than the likes of me would ever entertain. A contingent from the American Indian Movement. An elderly matron in a Liberty scarf patiently holding up a copy of Ron Suskind’s exposé Confidence Men, cover visible to those walking by on the street. Two middle-aged daddy bears just arrived from West Virginia to be part of the occupation for the weekend. Next to them where we flank the sidewalk, a mother of two teenagers from central California. People line up for lunch from a makeshift kitchen in the middle of Zuccotti Park. Plastic crates hold a lending library of 2000 volumes, just beyond a clearly posted but thinly inhabited Queer Space. A fresh edition of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, newly delivered to the square, sits on an information table.

Placards lie in a pile near the sidewalk for anyone who needs one. The slogans they bear prove the point that the scoffers make to discredit the movement: there’s no fixed or unified agenda here. But in the diversity lies strength and the bonds of a solidarity that difference doesn’t jeopardize, and surely that’s what’s terrifying, under the dismissive comments, to those who’d be glad for a narrower, more tightly defined interest that could be more easily coopted. “Do I contradict myself? I contain multitudes,” reads the quotation from Whitman at the information table.

Instead of rage, there’s celebration and a calm mutual respect, born of the moment when the dispossessed find one another and amongst themselves forge the will to see their lot as a bond between them rather than as a fate that each must try to escape on his own. There’s a gracious generosity, which sees that what’s particular to one or a few points the way to what all share. This is what happens when miscellaneous slaves decide they’re ready to leave Egypt whether they have a clear plan for getting through the desert or not.

This small concrete plaza amidst the high-rises is full of what the unbridled greed of international capital has most to fear: human beings following their hearts into the holy play of community, a non-sectarian liturgy in the making. A tall, beautiful young man with a black beard sits in lotus position on a tarp laid out on the pavement before a tanka of a wrathful bodhisattva. He carefully and steadily rings a singing bowl for fifteen minutes before the assembly of a meditation flash mob at the stroke of noon. A man in his sixties sits at a table churning out “We are the 99 Per Cent” buttons, inviting voluntary contributions as passers-by claim his output.

It’s all unbearably fragile, and inevitably subject to change. Perhaps the City of New York will try to sweep it away. In Oakland, California, another occupation faced tear gas, flash grenades, and rubber bullets two days ago, on the excuse of a few actions marginal to the protest . But for the moment, what matters most is raw hope. “The beginning is near,” reads another sign.

Last Saturday, walking into the midst of this wonder for a morning I’d stolen from errands uptown, holding a borrowed placard between the daddy bears and the retired matron, the clear tone of a meditating angel’s singing bowl ringing in our ears, I was grateful for the unlooked-for miracle of standing where I most wanted to be in the world.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Open to Desire

I’ve just gone back to Mark Epstein’s Open to Desire: The Truth About What the Buddha Taught (Gotham Books, paperback edition 2006). As intelligent as it is accessible, it holds up wonderfully to a second reading, and I suspect to a third down the road. A Jewish-Buddhist psychiatrist in private practice in New York, Epstein makes a clear and convincing argument for desire, and particularly for sexual desire, as a tool for spiritual growth—providing we see desire clearly for what it is.

He’s at pains to tweak some unfortunately standard English translations of the basic principles of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths. Epstein rephrases them more or less as follows: that all life is marked by pervasive dissatisfaction; that the cause of this dissatisfaction is our constant attempt to cling to the illusory promises of fulfillment; that to genuinely relinquish that clinging eliminates the cause of our dissatisfaction; and that we can overcome clinging by following Buddhism’s Eightfold Path of right living, action, and attitude.

He’s saying that, contrary to many assumptions about Buddhist teaching, it’s not desire we have to eliminate. Instead, we need to renounce attachment to a false image that turns the Beloved into an object, a vehicle for achieving what we want. If we don’t, the alternative is “chasing the dragon”: endlessly shopping for the ideal lover, the perfect experience, the mind-blowing orgasm, the hot scene to end all hot scenes. It’s not pretty when hunger and thirst feed only themselves: when, on the altar of an illusion, we sacrifice the reality of the life that unfolds before us and within us as a glorious, unpredictable, and fleeting gift.

If we instead experience desire mindfully, it becomes a great teacher: it leads us to recognize that what we yearn for always exceeds what we grasp. It reminds us that lack is fundamental to the reality of our lives, and that paradoxically we can only live fully when we embrace that fact instead of trying to escape it. Mindful desire invites us to accept that what we most truly long for always lies Beyond what we grasp after or strive to retain. We come to understand that the Beloved is not an object, but an unknowable Other with a life of his own that we can witness as a miracle and honor face to face but never possess—that our task (and our pleasure) is to go on desiring without clinging.

Here (p. 108) is Epstein at his most precise and, to me, most compelling: “The therapist, by not gratifying, but not rejecting, the unfinished cravings … models a new approach to desire. By examining those cravings in the nonjudgmental space of the therapeutic encounter, the therapist encourages a renunciation, not of desire itself, but of the clinging that comes to obscure it.” Though he’s talking about the therapeutic relationship in particular, I find myself thinking that to behave like this toward my partner, toward my friends, toward those whose lives touch mine in small, daily encounters, is a high, challenging, and worthy aspiration.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Lying Fallow

I've been thinking a lot about compost lately.

My neighbors and I have a new bin on order. It puzzles me how little attention composting gets in a village where what you throw out, you carry to the dump yourself. We're aiming for smaller, less smelly, and less frequent loads. And for the alchemy by which the remains of last night's meal, and last season's growth, become the matrix of new life: of worms, insects, and microbes converting nutrients; of next year's foliage and fruit nourished on the rich black leavings of that slow, dark process.

This isn't my first foray into the romance of garbage. Toronto, where I live when I'm not on an oversized spit of land jutting into the North Atlantic, is light years ahead of most American cities on matters of urban ecology and provides free bins to anyone who wants them. The compost pile's been a fixture of daily life there for years. But this is the first time I've identified so strongly with what goes into the bins.

I love seasons of growth: the burgeoning of spring, the green riot of summer; in my own life, the new adventure, the momentum of intentions coming to fruition; insights consolidated, awareness heightened, my sense of connection to the Sacred sure and full of energy, my love and compassion for those around me flowing easily out of the Love and Compassion I experience poured out upon me from that Presence.

Seasons when nothing seems to be happening next, I'm not so good at. After a summer of growth and discovery and fulfillment, I spent most of September describing myself as "needing to find traction."

Now it's beginning to dawn on me that the lesson that's staring me in the face isn't to be learned by getting the wheels to turn, but by looking down at what lies on the ground--a season's fallen foliage, awaiting slow transformation.

The outdoor altar I've tended the last year and a half goes on teaching me. Divided into upper and lower levels, it betrays its origins as a long-disused brick barbecue. Above, it's open to the light, facing south and warmed by the midday sun, a few tiny plants inexplicably rooted in the crumbling mortar. Below, a dark recess belongs not to the well-lit clarity above, but to the ants that have colonized the chinks and to sowbugs milling beneath the detritus that shelters them.

The upper platform is now cleared, since Equinox, of many of the objects that had been part of my morning and evening practice--but the floor of its lower chamber remains layered with leaves and withered blossoms from summer's prayers and offerings. Gently turning these remnants of a season of my life now past, I find the bottommost stratum of rich, moist decay and carefully restore an alarmed earthworm to the safety of the dark. Praying as my hands make contact with the unseen workings of God's dark, fallow fecundity, I reach toward the lesson I need to learn now.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Unnatural Relationships

(The font in Sjaeloer Kirke, Copenhagen--Wikimedia Commons)

Amidst the religious right’s endless hammering away at the sanctity of the heterosexual nuclear family, here’s one of the biggest ironies: that Christian relationships are the product not of bloods lines, “but of water and the spirit.” That phrase, from the third chapter of the Gospel of John, echoes later in the New Testament and into liturgies of baptism as well as into some of the rites of same-sex union that John Boswell brought to the attention of a wider public in a study published in 1994, very shortly before his death.

I have one godchild, N., the son of an old college friend. For eighteen years, living as I did some hundreds of miles from his parents, and drifting inexorably apart from them—my friend veered as far right as I veered left in matters both social and religious—I was about as feckless a godfather as I possibly could have been. I sent N. gently subversive books that I thought should go into the hands of the child of conservative parents, though by the time he was seven, I’d fled the toxicity of institutional Christianity altogether. That was virtually the extent of our relationship. Finally in his teens we simply lost touch.

It’s sheer grace that some ten years ago, thanks to the internet, he tracked me down—he at a juncture when his path forward required a new way to tell the story of his upbringing; me at a time when I’d found a queer-positive congregation where I could call myself Christian again with some sense of integrity; the two of us meeting on the margin of a wilderness into which we’d fled from what oppressed us. Somehow, together, we struck the rock and found living water, as much a gift to the one of us as to the other.

He’s thirty-five now, and married; smart, prodigiously accomplished, funny, with the heart and mind of a true seeker, a man who understands that in the absence of the firm answers we never get, what we have is longing and hope. Sitting at dinner with him and his wife last weekend, expansively reviewing the story of our interrupted relationship over a long, slow meal, then sitting beside him the next morning at the tiny church I frequent on the East End (“Last Lutherans before England,” the sign used to read out by the road), I thought, this is as good as it gets, and as good as it needs to get.