Do you like a party? The Spanish fiestas and how the yoga teachings offer us a way to enjoy!

You think Times Square knows how to throw a happening? Well, you ain’t seen anything yet. The fiestas in Spain are a party worth attending. They generally take place in late summer. In our village life, August is the hottest time of the year and this celebration is a welcome respite from the dog days.

Furthermore, in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, there is a teaching: 

2:18 Prakasha Kriya Stithi silam bhutendriyatmakam bhogapavargartham drsyam.

Translation: Life is here for us to enjoy or to use for freedom from suffering…

Just before fall, the grapes require patience. They are not quite ready for picking and the farmer’s work comes to a halt until the harvest. The weather does its job of final ripening and villagers need to hang around or… have a party.

…The body, senses, brain, as well as our ability to feel peaceful, excited and sleepy are all here for our enjoyment or for our awakening.

The festival is an old tradition in Spanish village life. Ian Gibson, in Federico Garcia Lorca’s Biography writes about the poet’s fascination and immersion in village life:

 

“My whole childhood was centered on the village. Sheppard’s, fields, sky, solitude. Total simplicity. I’m often surprised when people think the things in my work are daring improvisations of my own, a poet’s audacities. Not at all. They’re authentic details…  an approach to life in a simple, straightforward fashion. Looking and listening.” Federico Garcia Lorca

 

BKS Iyengar translates Sutra 2.18 as follows:

“Nature, its three qualities (sattva, rajas, and tamas) and its evolutes (the elements, mind, sense of perception an organs of action) exist eternally to serve the seer, for enjoyment or emancipation.”

The organization of the typical village festival begins with the festeras. Each year a dozen or so teenagers and a few senior member of the community are selected. Being a festera is a bit like being a homecoming queen or king. You spend the year planning, organizing, and creating decorations for the weeklong extravaganza called the fiesta. As I write, it is early morning; the sun has not yet looked out over the edge of the mountains and the fireworks, boom, boom, boom, are going off. These explosions are lit by the chosen festeras and they remind the villagers that life is short and the festival has begun! Everyone, the cherry bomb shouts, stay awake and love every minute.

The last line of our selected yoga teaching states that nature is here for our enjoyment or our emancipation. Even though there is an “or” in the lesson, it is my opinion that one does not preclude the other. The yogic practice heightens our awareness of pleasure and pain. We realize through direct experience, that both sensations arise in our daily existence. For me, the fruit of a sustained yoga practice is the delightful ability to enjoy life when it is pleasurable and free myself from increased suffering when pain arises.

Iyengar, in his book Light on the Yoga Sutras, teaches us that existence has three qualities. In Sanskrit these qualities are called the gunas. There are three gunas and there names are sattva, rajas, and tamas. If I were to describe these qualities using the ripening grapes as an example I would say:

The very ripest grape represents the state of sattva; it is perfectly sweet and ready to eat. This ripeness came about from the plants urge to grow, rajas. If the grape were to stay perfectly ripe for a sustained period of time, without change, it could not be a real grape; it could only be plastic. A real grape continues to ripen until the quality of tamas takes over and the sweetness begins the process of decay or transformation. The decay or tamasic state is integral to our lifecycle. Without the decay, the grape would never fall to the earth and make a fertile bed for its seed. The new plant would never be able to grow.

The qualities of rajas, tams and sattva are also illustrated in the first thee words of yoga Sutra 2.18 

1. Prakasha (brilliance or splendor) is an example of sattva.

2. Kriya (study or investigation) is an example of rajas.

3. Stithi (resting stillness) is an example of tamas.

According to yogic philosophy in the sutras, life, and every aspect of life, cycles through the three gunas. Life regularly exhibits qualities of brilliance, self-reflection, and stillness. The festivals in Spain ritualize these three qualities so we can experience the entirety of ourselves in one big extravaganza. It is important to experience and be aware of all aspects of life. The practice prevents us from resisting change. Change may be uncomfortable but is part of our ripening and it is crucial to our lives.

 

The activities of the fiesta range from feasting to fireworks. Kriya (self-study) occurs during the races, performances, and in the organization of the intricacies of the festival.  Prakasha (brilliance) is personified in the celebratory aspect of the party like fireworks and decorations. And stithi (silence) is palpable during the solemn processions.

The solemn procession is one of my favorite parts of the fiesta. To me the barefoot walk creates a ritualized microcosm of the big picture that is life. During the procession, villagers carry a designated saint out of the church and walk his or her image through the streets. There is candlelight and a most lovely brass band…. sort of New Orleans funeral style. The event is a mix of mythology, music, and conscious mindful walking meditation. I truly enjoy the dark streets, filled with silent friends. We use our bodies to reflect. I truly feel alive when I witness these old ways. They connect me directly to our small town and it’s medieval heritage.

"The field
of olive
opens and shuts
like a fan.
Over the olive grove
Is a sunken sky
And a dark rain
Of cold evening stars."
Federico Garcia Lorca

 

This year, when they opened the church for the removal of the patron saint, St. Roch ( the patron saint of dogs and protector against the plague) from his niche, I noticed how similar this practice is to the daily puja in India. How similar it is to the Brahman opening the door of the temple so the god can be seen. The ritual provides an opportunity to dive into the invisible world of the imagination. The ritual brings a symbolic life into the statue. We can identify and merge with the qualities of the illustrated divinity, allowing for reflection, self-study, and ultimately the transformation that comes with a devotional life.

 

“I love the countryside, I feel myself linked to all my emotions. My oldest childhood memories have a flavor of the earth. The meadows, the fields have done wonders for me.” Federico Garcia Lorca

 

I  can see how the solemn procession also reminds me of our sutra and how our skills on the mat are tools to free us. We can take ourselves out of our own niche, walk the streets, and come alive. The need for emancipation or freedom can be resolved simply by calling upon our beautiful practice.

Everyone in the village has a part to play in the fiesta. If you are not a festera you might be the family of one, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles abound. There are tourists, like me, who are welcome to join in; there are countless musicians, bar owners, policeman, and cleaning crews, locals, all with a role to play. It is not uncommon to see wheelchairs, babies, teens, and middle-agers all together, all the time.  The village works like an organism. I think it feels as if one lives in a castle with the stone streets that wind this way and that housing the royalty that is you.

 

But unique to village life, the royalty is economically diverse. The bar man lives right next to the physician and the schoolteacher right next to the policeman. There is no separation between the accommodations of the plumber, the lawyer or the hairdresser. I love this symbiosis. It creates diversity and an appreciation of ones contribution to the whole beyond the value of the paycheck. It seems to me the most valued characteristics in a village are those associated with being loving, helpful, thoughtful and kind.

Here is what Lorca had to say about his first visit to New York

“It’s the spectacle of the worlds money and all it’s splendor, it’s mad abandon, and it’s cruelty. There’d be no use in my trying to express in words the immense tumult of voices, cries, people dashing, hither and dither, lifts, all engaged in the poignant. Dionysian exaltation of money. Here you see the typist with fabulous legs that we have all seen in so many films, the cheery bellboy winking and chewing gum, and your pale individual with his collar up to the throat timidly holding out his hand and begging for five cents. This is where I got a clear idea of what a huge mass of people fighting to make money is really like. The truth is that it is an international war with just a thin veneer of courtesy.” Federico Garcia Lorca

 

Patajali reminds us that all of nature is here to serve the seer. How can I use this moment for enjoyment or freedom? When an experience of tension or a feeling of darkness arises, reaction can occur. As yogi’s we can bring mindfulness to the moment and avoid reaction, cultivating the skill of response. When we take the tools of our practice into hand we can:

1. Manage the feelings associated with the full spectrum of life. For example, this is a difficult emotion but like pleasure, I know it too will pass. 

2. Liberate our actions from the habits we developed as coping mechanisms when we were still immature. These mechanisms include the proverbial fight, flight or freeze response.

Then the bulls arrive.

I don’t know exactly how I feel about the bulls, or at least I don’t think I can put it in a single paragraph. In America our treatment of animals is so corrupt. Bull-running in Spain originally began in the 13th century as a way of corralling beasts headed for the ring. They were run through the streets of Paloma, Spain toward their demise. Today, the running of the bulls is a time-honored tradition. The run conjures images of man against beast and the dominion of humans over nature. It includes all of the required characteristics: bravery, creativity, and agility without a fight to the death. Today the bulls are brought in from the countryside and they are set free in the streets. All of the houses are barricaded in cages and the people are behind the bars. The village arrives for the spectacle and the bulls are let out one at a time, taunted by the people while young men step out to show their bravery and skill. To me it is a bit cruel and antiquated. That being said, these bulls have been around the block and they would just stand there and chew cud if it were not for the taunting…. I try to keep an open mind to the value of cultural identity and it’s preservation... but I can’t watch for too long.

"To burn with desire and keep quiet about it, is the greatest punishment we can bring ourselves.” Federico Garcia Lorca

The tradition of the bulls goes back to a time when there was no television, fast cars, or any other adrenaline pumping activities we safely enjoy today. This was a way to come face to face with fear and overcome that fear in front of your community. No bull is killed and from what I hear, other than August, where they are carted from festival to festival, the bulls have a pretty good, long life. So it is what it is. Everyone gathers to watch and in a sense the bulls are the grand finale…except of course for the fireworks, right over-head, loud, and with a bang we finally sleep.

“As I have not worried to be born, I do not worry to die.” Federico Garcia Lorca

Nature is here to offer us experiences of pleasure and pain, always changing, coming and going. Our nature too, is to rise, peak, and fall away. This is described in the yoga sutra and illustrated in the village fiesta with its insistent celebration after a long year of toil before the final rest of winter. As yogis it is good to remember that we can enjoy pleasure when it comes. We can spread our joy to others in neighborly endeavors like the fiestas and we can know, at the same time, change will come, change will come.

According the yoga sutras, life is here for us to enjoy or to use as a to release from our own suffering. And one does not preclude the other

 

 

Your art is a prayer. Eusebio Sempere: Valencia’s important Artist and his Prayerful Practice.

The exhibition feels like a charcoal mountaintop just before the rain. I walk in and I can barely make out the never-ending circles. The triangles, spirals and squares are almost invisible because of the dimly lit space. Rebecca Solnit reminds us, there is hope in the dark, and these shapes are hopeful. Their tiny forms make their tinier brushstrokes look as if they are lit from within. The color comes from nature: green, gold, blue and the most unexpected red. They are like light in the storm; like times when the sun shines though a bit of cloud illuminating only what it wants you to see.

Our father who art in heaven let us pay attention to your name.

Before one actually arrives at the door of the Alicante Museum of Contemporary Art, Spain; it is hard to pass by the Santa Maria Cathedral. This Basilica, on Santa Maria Square, is a 16th century gem in the gothic Venetian style. Its baroque entry invites me into the familiar scent of many catholic churches: frankincense and must. Limestone floors offer an echo of the mass in progress and then the gold begins. Each niche features a saint. This church boasts plenty of Mary’s (the patron saint). They are often exquisite and full of suffering. In general, the saints in Spain’s churches are art themselves, unnervingly realistic with skin colored paint and facial expressions that wake up even the sleepiest of visitors.

On the day we visited the museum (AMCA), we stumbled into mass; specifically into the Our Father.

This world is made in your image, with all the beauty and horror of existence.

Pressed right up against the church is the museum. AMCA is housed in a contemporary renovation of Alicante’s oldest civil building,  the Casa de Asegurada (1685). It stands in stark contrast to its neighbor, the basilica. The building itself has clean contemporary lines and a worthwhile collection of paintings and sculptures. Some of my favorites include Juan Miro, Antoni Tapies, Jose Guerro Quattro and a big Juan Usle.

To me, the gem of this art house is a chapel on the third floor. It is an exhibition space entirely dedicated to Alicante’s most important artist Eusebio Sempere. Sempere is best known for his contributions to the kinetic sculptural movement of the 1970’s. But my favorite room contained still and quiet gouache paintings mostly executed in the 1950s.  

And what happens is the work of the whole; sometimes I am filled with pleasure, other times filled with pain.

The gallery space housing these works is dimly lit and the paintings are executed on mid tone-grey, blue, or brown paper. The paper looks soft, like cotton, felt or the finest wool. Sempere, who had vision in only one eye, draws geometric shapes and fills those shapes with the tiniest colored lines. These lines are applied with a very small brush and perfectly mixed opaque, gouache is the medium.

Both here in the world and in our hearts.

Sempere’s skill with color and pattern creates a mosaic of experience: like Spanish tile, or the light through the leaves of an olive tree. He contains this experience within an inch or two, allowing me as the viewer to take the pattern into my heart, my belly or my mind. I can digest the images like a prayer, or tapas, served on a small plate with an glass of wine. These paintings seem like offerings meant to be savored. Like Thomas Nozkowski and his three rules for art making, Sempere's paintings reject the idea of the grand and instead settle onto humble every day experiences: buttons, water droplets, lichen.

I ask for this day and my food. I make this request with love.

Sempere liked to work alone, in silence. His paintings are a meditation. He has created an entire visual alphabet that he uses precisely and with firm intention. I think, in it’s best application, the catholic prayer is not a vocalization of need but a beautiful practice of intention. A practice to place the lips, the mind, and the body all in one space with a very specific, holy attitude. Thomas Merton in his Thoughts on Solitude, says a prayer is not a wish but a real thing that one places into the world like art or music. Sempere’s small, delicate paintings work like this.

The relationship of one shape to another is important. The way one square sits next to it’s neighbor sets the tone of the piece. The negative space in between the shapes is like the path around the nearby mountains, discoverable but slippery and a bit uneven. Every ounce of attention is required to walk from one foothold to the next. I feel like Sempere’s paintings are inquiries into what he should do? How he should be? And who he is?

Labyrinth, lotus, or sun? I can’t tell you for sure. Sempere uses pure geometric abstraction as his tool but these sweet and moving pieces surely draw me in to the realm of myth, story, and biography.  I might imagine stars at night or fish in the sea as I look at the paintings. But their insistence on ambiguity allows inspiration, both yours and mine.

And please, I am so sorry for the times I fail, or forget, or am just too lazy to do my best.

Color is a marvelous quality of this world. Technically, it is a visual perceptual process but its emotional impact should not be missed. Sempere’s color vibrates. It moves forward and back creating harmonies and contrasts. His skill at pairing hues works to calm the mind, like meditation. The same red feels warm and inviting when it is sitting next to yellow but cool and somewhat menacing when it is sitting next to its appointed blue. Sempere uses color like stained glass in the church to elevate, soothe, and give visual delight.

 

I will try to understand that others also do their best. And others fail too, just like me.

The drawings as a whole are like shadows. Shadows do not exist completely in the dark, but at the edge of the light. The works pull the viewer into a world protected from the harsh light of the sun and tell a story in the shade. They exist in a quiet realm more akin to the whisper than a shout. Eusebio Sempere’s gallery is a space of peace.

I make this prayer to remind myself, who is part of you, that I feel better when I act from a place of love. Mindfulness, consciousness.

 Sempere donated most of the art in the museum.  If you happen to be in España, the Plaza of Santa Maria is not to be missed. The Museum of Contemporary Art contains treasures that teach us about Spain’s rich contribution to contemporary art. AMCA is a place of freedom: a place to imagine while seeing the prayerful work of Eusebio Sempere.

“I will place myself in places where I can cultivate positive emotions.” Bruce Lee

And reside in the practice of creating habits that encourage positive emotions.

 For more reading on a contemporary artist who created his own visual alphabet look to: Codex Seraphinus an imagined world. I found it first shared on Jane Chafin's blog.

 

Om

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thich Nhat Hahn shows us How to Love, and The Giving Tree illustrates How Generosity Engenders Happiness.

“Once there was a tree… and she loved a little boy” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.

It is better to give than to receive and giving is nothing without love. I first learned this lesson in the 70’s after receiving and reading Shel Silverstein’s beautiful book, The Giving Tree. The story also helped me form an understanding of unconditional love and its price. It was an emotional experience I have never forgotten, like the first time I fired a shotgun…boom. The idea that unconditional love is equal to a happy Hallmark ending is simply untrue but does that make it any less valuable? We should all find a way to give.

“And everyday he would come and he would gather her leaves, and make them into crowns, and play king of the forest.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.

Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Monk and teacher, in his book How to Love, teaches us ways to begin embracing the complexity of generosity in Silverstein's story. The book reads as if he were speaking directly to the predictable needs of the boy and the remarkable sacred offering given by the tree. Even in the deepest black of the night, the tree finds a way to give.

“Understanding someone’s suffering is the best gift you can give another person. Understanding is loves other name.”  Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.

When the boy in the book is an actual boy and he plays with renewable resources, leaves and shade, the sacrifice is somehow happy. There is a seeming mutuality between the tree and the boy and every one is pleased. As the boy grows up and takes the trees branches and eventually her trunk, we as viewers can begin to take offense. We begin to see the boy as thoughtless, as selfish.

When I love, I forget myself and I can give. When I remember myself, I am afraid that I do not have enough. I ask why should I give; I need my branches, it won’t make a difference anyway?

Walter Brueggermann’s book, The Other Kingdom, points to neighborliness, fallibility and mystery as worthy endeavors in this life. He argues that the sale of safety, perfection and scarcity that comes with capitalism might be a lie.

Our exploitation of the forest came without regard for the trees and much of our consumer economy came as a result of taming the forest, removing the trees, and planting agriculture. We thought the forest could give infinitely and then it was gone:

“He could scarcely believe it. Where was the forest? The landscape had been corrupted. The village had swollen by fifty houses. The forest had been pushed out of sight, and in their place were rough fields of crops growing between stumps…was the forest as vulnerable as the beaver?” Annie Proulx, Barkskins.

The boy in The Giving Tree is fallible. The mystery of why man does what he does in the name of progress, abundance, and innovation is put forward in the story. I want…says the boy, again and again. I want.

It seems to me that now may be the time for us to ponder whether our wants, desires, and their cost to the whole are worth it? Is there any lasting value to our dream of family, home, boat, two cars in the garage and a storage space? Is the price too high?

“But time went by and the boy grew up.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.

He soon was too big to play and needed money and the tree had no money. I noticed similar concerns rising again and again in Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Somewhere our world took a trading currency and began to see it as an asset that defined character and happiness.

“The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor. But there were difficulties- especially the ugliness of a toothless, collapsed jaw. It might be impossible to find a handsome wife. Unless he had money.” Annie Proulx,  Barkskins.

But she had fruit and said “Take my apples, Boy, and sell them in the city. Then you will have money and you will be happy." Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.

Thich Nhat Hanh continues: “Spiritual Practice doesn’t mean blind belief in a spiritual teaching. Spirituality is a practice that brings relief, communication, and transformation.”
“Keep in mind that if the forests and the timberlands are diminished, cropland is very much augmented- more food, more money, more people, more contentment.” Barkskins, Annie Proulx

This dilemma seems very timely even today as we ponder generosity and love. We all have our basic needs fulfilled (food, shelter, clothing) so the question becomes how much is enough? The platform of our economy is based on consumer goods that provide only temporary contentment…in a way we are all the boy. Our needs can never be permanently satisfied when we look to the world for fulfillment.

The boy did not return to the tree until he needed branches for a home, then again when he needed her trunk for a boat.

“If you pour a handful of salt into a cup of water, the water becomes undrinkable. But if you pour that same handful into a river, people can continue to draw the water to cook, wash, and drink.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.

The tree was like the river in her bounty. Her understanding that love is an experience within. Her realization that love may ask for a sacrifice is truly brave. Offering beyond what we imagine is safe, possible, or acceptable takes courage. I often think about how the forest has given each of us our every desire. The cost to our forest is immeasurable. Each of us has received in the same way as the boy. Our whole life and our way of living deny the tree its branches and trunk.

I think we make a great offering to the trees when we are able to sit with the discomfort of the truth Silverstein pens.

“But even as Sosep spoke, he knew very well that many Mi’kmaq welcomed the ways of the Acadian French - their clothing, their stout boats, their vegetable and pork roasts, the metal tools, glass ornaments and bolts of fabric, their intoxicating spirits and bright flags and even their hot bare bodies, so pale.” Annie Proulx, Barkskins.

Finally the tree is just a stump and the boy is an old man. And still the tree provides a place for the boy to sit.

“True love includes a sense of responsibility and accepting the other person as she is, with all her strengths and weaknesses. If you only like the best things in a person, that is not love.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
“They were together again, and the tree was happy.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.

The book does not say the boy was happy. Although he was the one receiving the gifts of the tree, his ceaseless desire seems to have left him unfulfilled. Each one of us knows this feeling. We are all familiar with the treadmill of scarcity and perfection. We live as if something out there will fulfill us when it is inside that needs tending, attention, and care.

Although I have engaged in practice for a sustained period of time, I notice many ways I simply take. I often leave a big footprint in my path. I often follow those footprints back to the source for more.

“He carried it alone to their camp, his feet making a deep impression with every step. After he let down the burden he made them examine his footprints. ‘ You see how deep when a man carries a heavy burden?” Sometimes that person is carrying supplies, sometimes fur packs, and sometimes a bear.”  Annie Proulx, Barkskins.

But I try. I try to spend time each year living simply. In India and in Spain, I live without the trappings of the consumer world. As Whitman would say, rejecting the pull of it all. I think it is good for my soul. It brings ease to my perspective of the world, offering me a softer, more still way to be.

“If we set aside time each day to be in a peaceful environment, to walk in nature, or even just to look at a flower or the sky, then beauty will penetrate us and feed our love and our joy.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love. 

Our  beautiful practice creates strong roots. A tree whose roots are shallow will blow over in the first big storm. If we let our roots grow deep we can be resilient to the sometimes-startling weather of our life. The roots of a lasting relationship, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, are: mindfulness, deep listening, and loving speech. The tree in The Giving Tree embodied these ideals because that was who she wanted to be. And she was happy. The author reminds us of this again and again. David Byrne uses his bicycle to keep sane, the form will vary, but the roots, if deep are apparent.

The boy is a child for the entirety of his life. He never, even when he physically becomes an old man, matures into a place of wisdom.

Thich Nhat Hanh illustrates this immaturity with the metaphor of a pot without a lid.

“We believe our lid is somewhere in the world and if we look very hard, we will find the right lid to cover our pot. But the feeling of emptiness is always there inside us.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.

This feeling of emptiness is no more or less real that the feeling of wealth that the tree embodied. It is a choice. The feeling we choose implies what we shall do.

Giving what she had, she exists in the now. Although we might consider the stump a kind of death....  

The tree listens to the desire of the boy and gives what she can. True listening is listening without correcting.

“Sometimes someone will say something that surprises us, that is the opposite of the way we see things. Allow the other person to speak freely. Don’t cut your loved one off or criticize his words, when we listen deeply with all of our hearts…we will begin to see them deeply and understand them better.” Thich Nhat Hanh, How to Love.
“And the tree was happy.” Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree.

It’s a beautiful practice but it’s not always nice. Rebecca Solnit on darkness: it’s necessity, fertility, and beauty.

Rebecca Solnit, author of Hope in the Dark, in an On Being podcast, said that from the darkness comes the best of humanity. That which we call disaster is only a disaster because our ability to respond is hampered by some limitation. Instead, if we look from a specific perspective we will see that our ability to care, help, and love often emerges from the courage to respond in the deepest black of the night. In her essay, Acts of Hope: Challenging Empire on the World Stage, she says: 

“ History is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

The idea that we can do some unseen good and it contributes to the betterment of others and ourselves in the long run requires courage and endurance. In Solnit's words it requires hope.

“Nearly everyone felt, after September 11, 2001, along with grief and fear, a huge upwelling of idealism, of openness, of a readiness to question and to learn, a sense of being connected and a desire to live our lives for something more, even if it wasn't familiar, safe, or easy.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

Dorothy Day, saint, activist, and founder of the Catholic Workers Movement describes a foundational moment in her life. She says it begins with a  disaster.

The 1938 earthquake in San Francisco wrecked havoc on the city and killed thousands of people. In addition, countless homes were destroyed and many citizens of the city were left without shelter, water, food or clothing.

Dorothy noticed that amidst this tragedy there was something miraculous happening. Her family and her neighbors were taking care of each other. They were helping and loving one another. Dorothy Day’s epiphany was not the observation that people want to help but that one can be helpful all the time. She realized that there was nothing to keep one from living a life of service. Dorothy Day found service gratifying; as a result the rest of her prolific life was dedicated to embodying hope.

“We talk about 'what we hope for' in terms of what we hope will come to pass but we could think of it another way, as why we hope. We hope on principle, we hope tactically and strategically, we hope because the future is dark, we hope because it's a more powerful and more joyful way to live.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

The idea of hope in the dark is hard to understand. I find the following Buddhist tale helpful. I first heard the story from my meditation teacher, Steve Haddad. I've published it before, when my beautiful dog, Sugar Ray, passed away.

The Buddha and a grain of rice.

Once there was a woman whose beautiful young son died suddenly. She was distraught and felt like dying herself. She went to the Buddha and asked the Blessed One to bring the boy back to life.

The Buddha, seeing the woman’s inconsolable grief, wanted to help in whatever way he could.

“My dear woman,” he said, “I will bring your son back to life but first you must complete a single task.”

“Anything!” she replied.

“ You must go to the village and find someone who has not had lost a loved one to death. When you find that person, ask them for a single grain of rice, bring that grain back to me and I will return your son to you.”

The woman thanked the Buddha and left to knock on doors.

A young girl answered the first door and the woman told her the story of her son and the Buddha and a grain of rice. “Have you had death or loss,” she asked? “Can you give me the grain of rice?”

The girl was moved by the woman’s story and wanted to help but she could not. She explained that last year her beloved mother passed away. She, her father, and her brother felt many nights of grief and loss.

The woman thanked her for her time and went to the next door.

A gentleman answered and the woman told her story. “Unfortunately,” the man replied, “I cannot help you. My beloved wife passed away this winter. I still feel so much pain and loss on some days, I still cry.”

The woman knocked on door after door. She knocked not only in her own village but the next village and the next.

After three days the woman realized she was not alone in her grief. She saw that everyone has lost someone they love.

The woman took comfort in this understanding. Though she missed her son very much, she knew she was not the only one to experience loss. She returned to the Buddha and they sat in meditation. The woman was able to live with her loss and the story continues. The woman reaches enlightenment by recognizing her connection to others. She spends the rest of her time helping people heal from grief and the devastation of death.

“The world gets better. It also gets worse. The time it will take you to address this is exactly equal to your lifetime, and if you're lucky you don't know how long that is. The future is dark. Like night. There are probabilities and likelihoods, but there are no guarantees.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

Discomfort takes place throughout the body, mind and spirit.  Discomfort and our perpetual actions to move away from discomfort can initiate apathy, confusion, fear and intense sadness. Physically, we can experience symptoms including low energy, increased physical and altered circadian or daily rhythms including the breathing, circulatory and sleeping patterns. 

Discomfort is a human reaction to any loss, trouble, or disappointment. Understanding the inevitability and temporality of discomfort can help us endure, can help us to work without necessarily seeing the fruits of our labor, without missing the opportunity to celebrate a victory just because that victory cannot yet be seen.

“As Adam Hochschild points out, from the time the English Quakers first took on the issue of slavery, three quarters of a century passed before it was abolished in Europe and America. Few if any working on the issue at the beginning lived to see its conclusion, when what had once seemed impossible suddenly began to look, in retrospect, inevitable. And as the law of unintended consequences might lead you to expect, the abolition movement also sparked the first widespread women's rights movement. It took about the same amount of time to secure the right to vote for American women and has achieved far more in the subsequent 83 years, and is by no means done. Activism is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark.

The body-mind reacts with discomfort to many things or ideas: The unknown, a reminder of past pain can all trigger a feeling of discomfort, but for example, in the Bhagavad-Gita, we are shown the importance of hope despite our blind king seated on the throne.

“The world gets worse. It also gets better. And the future stays dark.” Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

New grief triggers old; every time we face a new loss, we are confronted with the grief of previous loss, in our own life as well as the grief we carry as a family and as a community. A willingness to embrace the dark, to stop lighting up the night sky as a prerequisite for hope can ease the sensations of mystery. Without the darkness the sun would dry up the world in an instant and we would perish very quickly. Pema Chodron, Buddhist Monk and beloved teacher, says that tapping into our personal discomfort is the most effective way to initiate our own transformation. This transformation is eternal and takes circuitous roads, in and out of the light; to nowhere we could ever know, the hopeful place.

"People have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture  than the strange, sidelong paths in a world without end" Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark

I found Hope in the Dark at:  http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/677/rebecca_solnit_on_hope_in_dark_times visit here for Toms perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

Whitman rejects the pull of it all. Jon Yau writes about Thomas Nozkowski and Thomas Merton speaks on the ordinariness of the spiritual path.

Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski

“ Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am,
Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle, unitary,
Looks down, is erect, bends an arm on an impalpable certain
                       Rest
Looks with side curved head, curious what will come next,
Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.” Walt Whitman

 

Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski

 

Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk and spiritual master, reminds us that when we enter the monastery, we no longer have to get anywhere.

As I enjoy village life I am reminded of another Merton quote from Thoughts in Solitude

“If we want to be spiritual, first of all let us live our lives.” 

John Yau, an exceptional art thinker and writer penned an essay called The Secular Heretic. It talks about the artist Thomas Nozkowski and his commitment to rejecting the pull of it all.  Nozkowski is an extraordinary abstract painter and Yau does a great job describing why.

He says that Nozkowski’s paintings are so interesting because he broke three rules.

1. He moved away from big, grand, monumental, painting size.

2 He chose mundane, student grade-painting materials.

3. He is painting abstract works based on something he has experienced, something he saw, read, or heard.

These three rules give Nozkowski permission to be him-self, permission to paint the things of his life with attention and care. He paints everyday, starting and completing one small painting each day.

From Merton’s perspective Nozkowski decided to first of all to live his life and then make paintings about that.

Nozkowski’s yogic approach to making art reminds me to live and practice simply without the need for fancy poses, a fancy mat, or any conceptual ideas about the yoga that is outside my experience.

Thomas Merton, who was truly dedicated to a mundane path toward enlightenment, says,

“If God is everywhere then there is nowhere to go and nothing to do in order to love...”

Yau states “Nozkowskis decision to always make a specific experience the root of each painting suggests two things:

1. He wasn’t tempted to connect his work to a grand system such as might be found in theories about opticality, the reification of paintings flatness, paintings death, the kabala, alchemy or any other totalizing scheme, arcane or otherwise.

2. He was secular artist concerned with the stuff of this world, seeking reassurance or comfort in a larger structure was never part of his project.”

Merton continues,

“We are all gods Son, and we are already what we are seeking.”

For me these words are a relief in a world of heightened anxiety and consumer platforms that are as grand as they can be. The influence of media in our culture can infuse us with panic, anxiety and an urgency that is not really there. It is imagined, inferred and implied but certainly not real.

Rejecting comfort in a larger structure does not mean that Noskowski, or any of us, are not worthy of an experience in a larger structure, whether that structure be the monastery, art itself or a specific yoga style.  

But Yau reminds us that seeking a specific experience with prescribed materials for a predetermined outcome will fall short of Art or Yoga. It will fall short in the realm of satisfaction and joy.

According to Merton if man is really acting according to his or her nature he or she experiences the 4 passions in relation to your work. The 4 passions are love, fear, joy and sorrow.

On the enlightened path the work could be yoga, art, God or anything else that you love. The subject of the work can be as individual and varied as we are. The practice offers the opportunity to do work thoughtfully with a contentment that says doing the work is enough. We can contextualize our passions and through our own understanding of the work.

Love of the art (or yoga, God)

Fear of being separated from the art (or yoga, God)

Joy in being the art (or yoga, God)

and

Sorrow when we forget the art (or yoga, God) is everything.

 

Merton reminds me, if I come back to my direct experience, without any attachments I see there is an opportunity to love.

“For me, to be a saint means to be myself.”

 

Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski

 

Yau concludes: “Beneath the intensely worked surfaces of his sophisticated visual hijinks and human comedy, I sense a large reservoir of despair, the recognition that true and deep communication might be entirely futile.

Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, and the illusions of refuge and solace that society continuously offers us, we all harbor a deep- seated suspicion that we will never be able to explain our sincerest feelings to each other because we would never be able to agree on the definitions of words we use. There is no talking cure, but we better keep talking.

Without ever overstating the case, calling attention to himself, or making claims for his project (he was never that kind of artist) Noskowski, makes the comic and tragic inseparable but never the same. This is where his paintings gently bring me to- a place where the ordinary meets the magical, where we see ourselves looking so that we might look again and again.”

Do your work and try making it as true and quiet as it can be. Let yourself be simple but honest. There is a full life that reveals herself when we let go of the notions of what it should be and that we should get somewhere with it.

 

 

When Infinity comes to an end: Barkskins by Annie Proulx and For the Felling of An Elm in The Harvard Yard By Adrienne Rich

Some things seem just too painful to think about. Sometimes  caring friends say, "Why don’t you think about something else; there is nothing you can do." But maybe thinking about it, writing about it, is a start.

 

For The Felling of an Elm in The Harvard Yard

By Adrienne Rich

They say the ground precisely

Swept

No longer feeds with rich decay

The roots enormous in their age

That long and deep beneath have

Slept...

 

What if it was true; that America is not the promise land? What if, like so many other new frontiers, America began as a depository for people that Europe had no place for? A place for the un-heard. And what if the unheard utilized the practice of exploiting other un-heard's to build their wealth?

 

“Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distinct from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage.”

 

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx begins with this premise and it’s historical rawness is strong. Yes, it is a novel, but the forest as a metaphor for the unheard is timely. With a seemingly limitless resource (trees) dwindling in the span of a generation and threatened to the point of extinction in three, we realize our power and our ignorance in one fell swoop. Both the Native peoples and the trees are systematically exploited and destroyed during the span of the book and at the same time, the trees and the Indians are the key to its survival.   Our purity and infinitude are simultaneously questioned as a result of our competent destructiveness and they (purity and infinitude) are counted on for the necessary healing.

 

So the great spire is overthrown,

And sharp saws have gone hurtling

Through

The rings that three slow centuries

Wore:

The second oldest elm is down.

 

It wasn’t all pleasure in the forest, and the impulse to control the wild can, from a certain perspective, be understood. We all want to feel safe.

 

“Bebites assailed them, miniscule no-see-ums like heated needles, black-flies with a painless bite that dispersed slow toxins, swarms of mosquitoes in such millions that their shrill keening was the sound of the woods.”

 

But this book reminds me how far from center we can travel. Fueled by greed and self-centeredness we wander into the realm of destruction. On the other hand, the authors persistence in illustrating the characters creativity and intelligence surrounding difficult circumstance, allows us to experience how close to center we always remain.

How do we act in this world so that we honor the un-heard?  In what way can we walk without crushing the unseen? Yogic tradition has texts like the Bhagavad-Gita and the Yoga Sutras that offer us tenants, traditions, and practices to help guide our way. But one might ask, as the consumer lifestyle we as American lead begins to inspire the rest of the world, are we setting a good example?

...The shade where James and

Whitehead strolled

Becomes litter on the green.

The young men pause along the paths

To see the axes glinting bold...

 

I am reminded of the yoga practice when Proulx describes the seminal character, Rene Sells, chopping down the trees of New France.

“Rene chopping trees, felt not the act but the pure motion, the raised ax, the gathering tension in the arms and shoulders, buttocks and thighs, the hips pivoting, knees loose and flexed, an then the swing downward as abstract as the shadow of a stone, a kind of forest dance.”

 

Here we see swinging an ax can be an embodiment of presence. Does that make the act any less destructive? Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, gives us countless practices to bring us to this exact state. But are we brave enough to see the outcomes of our action and change our course. Can we embody respect and preservation of the whole?

At first, the forest is infinity in the story. The lives of the native people are perfectly intertwined in the workings of the massive eco-system that is the woods. There is life and death but the infinity of regeneration is based on a balance that arises from mutual respect.

 

"They do not have orderly lives as we do. Their time is fitted to the abundance crests of the animals, fruits, and fish- that is to say, to the seasons of the hunt and ripening berries. One of the most curious attributes is their manner of regarding trees, Plants, all manner of Fish, the moose and the bear, and others as their Equals…. To them the trees are Persons.”

 

Much of the book whispers about the synthesis of the native peoples and the trees in a life that is neither grand nor insignificant. A symbiotic relationship that does not offer eternal youth or everlasting life, except in the form of a world that both provides and takes away.

 

“ How big is this forest? Asked Duquet in his whining treble voice. He was scarcely larger than a child. “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has seen its farthest dimension."

 

Personal success and accomplishment is integral in our modern understanding of yoga. After all, what is the benefit to the purchaser?  This is the number one question considered in marketing the practice; it’s classes, workshops and trainings. I get it, but Barkskins reminded me of the joy that arises from receiving no benefit at all. If we work for the benefit of others we become the beneficiary of community. Proulx suggests just this.

 

“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit."

 

These guardian spirits are not real; they are the “stories” of a people who care for and respect the trees. People who live among the trees as equals.

With the destruction of this “story” the forests fall. Settlers come in droves, the landscape and ultimately the climate changes. The balance has been tipped and the wealth is distributed to a few. This wealth is not stumbled upon. The book points to the driven mind that sees money and prosperity at the expense of all else. Clothing, wigs, ivory teeth, and mansions are on the bucket list in the 1700’s.

Has anything really changed? Has anyone questioned the real cost of things when the unheard still stand invisible?

Wonder Exhibit at the Renwick, Tree by John Grade

Wonder Exhibit at the Renwick, Tree by John Grade

 

...Watching the hewn trunk dragged

Away,

Some turn the symbol to their own,

And some admire the clean dispatch

With which the aged elm came

Down.

 

We only have one world and as far as anyone knows, we only have one life. Are you living it in a way that your children will be able to breath the air, swim in the oceans, and love their little life too?

 

Or, as Mary Oliver says,

"...have you gone crazy for the power of things?"

 

Barkskins is just over 700 pages. I am reading it for the second time, straight through. I could not comprehend the names,  the French and what I would call Proulxisms the first time. The story is painful, apt, and like Bosch, confronting me with a perspective I need to see.

 

I recommend it, take the story to heart and see what you shall do.

 

 

 

 

The Bicycle in Spain is like life…pleasure, pain, pleasure and pain. Also David Byrne's Bicycle Diaries.

Chris and I love to see the Spanish terrain at different speeds. We look from a plane, a car, a train, during a walk and perhaps my favorite perspective,  seeing Spain from a bike. I was very surprised after I wrote these words to find a very similar quote in the marvelous, Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne.

“ The point of view - faster than a walk, slower than a train, often slightly higher than a person - became my panoramic view…” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

Byrne, who cycles like I do at home, (only better because he is a rock star) has written a diary chronicling 7 years of thoughts, sights, and experiences on his bicycle. He uses his fold-up bike, commuter style while on tour and at home; he goes here, there and everywhere. This style of riding differs a bit from strapping the bike onto a car rack and heading to the country for long tours or races. He, instead, carries his bike and utilizes this mode of transportation to connect and find center in a lifestyle that could otherwise be stressful and filled with a sense of separation. As B.K.S. Iyengar says,  whole living is learning to live between the earth and the sky.

“ I found that biking around for just a few hours a day - or even just to and from work - helps keep me sane. People can lose their bearings when they travel, unmoored from their familiar physical surroundings …… It (biking) sounds like some form of meditation, and in a way it is.” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

His connection to Baltimore was also a nice surprise bringing me more pleasure from the read.

“ I’ve been riding a bicycle as my principle means of transportation in New York since the early 1980’s. I tentatively at first gave it a try, and it felt good even here in New York. I felt energized and liberated. I had an old three-speed left over from my childhood in the Baltimore suburbs, and for New York, that’s pretty much all you need.” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

While here in Spain, Chris and I start out on our bikes early. We begin before the sun rises too much and the cool dry air of the Lliber valley warms. In fact, the air in the wee-hours of morning contains a slight chill, even in July.

In his book, Byrne shares his perspective from the bike on a wide range of topics: city planning, matters of the heart, and quality of life. His realism is inspiring. His view far more clear than the blur one might experience from a car or a tour bus. He says,

“Living "in" a story, being part of a narrative, is much more satisfying than living without one. I don't always know what narrative it is, because I'm living my life and not always reflecting on it, but as I edit these pages I am aware that I have an urge to see my sometimes random wandering as having a plot, a purpose guided by some underlying story.”  David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

When we ride, Chris and I talk a bit but mostly we just look at the Spanish landscape. Costa Blanca is magnificent. At one point the UN declared this part of the world as having the best climate on the planet. Our part of Spain is a little nose that sticks out into the Mediterranean. This coupled with a landscape that was built by giant edges of the last ice age provides some of the most interesting riding in the world. Effort on the mountainous terrain is a challenge but the roads are good and the scenery is unbelievable. There is rarely a car and we are free to pedal, climb, and down hill soar.

“ Where is this all going? I’m optimistic these days. I envision transformed cities, often with more people on the streets. People who aren’t made to feel that they are intruders, secondary to cars.” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries.

When we travel by bike, I see the side of the road and the distance as a collage of two realities, far and near. One is no truer than the other. They become like poetry. Each it’s own metaphor, a picture of now, as it is.  The distant view of Spain often contains terraces and medieval history, crumbling towers and hillside towns. In a way the distance wears a whitewash of nirvana while close by the scene includes orchards, birds, plastic, concrete, and a dry version of the earth. Glue them together and you have Costa Blanca, our home.

“I wouldn't be surprised if poetry--poetry in the broadest sense, in the sense of a world filled with metaphor, rhyme, and recurring patterns, shapes, and designs--is how the world works. The world isn't logical, it's a song.” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

Chris and I always set moderate goals when we head out. We will just ride a few kilometers today. This way neither one of us will balk or say, oh no too far, we cannot go! Then off we ride, first down the cobbled streets of our village, then onto the smooth paved roads of the valley.

“Bicycle Manufacturers are responding to urban development as well. Many more models of city bikes are available…. These bikes, -many loosely modeled on the Dutch style bikes or the old school bikes some of us had as kids- aren’t for racing or doing tricks, but for getting around elegantly and cleanly.” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

The first climb arrives quickly. Our valley is an ancient seabed filled with vineyards. Originally the industry was dominated by the production of sweet Muscat raisins but today it is known for its wines. We cannot travel far before finding a hill. The first thought is: oh, we are too old for this, too weak, or too scared. I can recognize this habitual thinking; it is part of the narrative, a result of the pain.  It only takes a few minutes of breath for this part of the story and these thoughts to pass; the ride is too much fun. It only takes a small piece of concentration for everything to change and over the first hill comes the second sensation of joy. This joy surpasses the first thrill of getting on the bike and starting out. The fun moves to the next level where we are overwhelmed by a sense of accomplishment mingled with the freedom a bike brings.

We often get to our intentioned finish line quicker than we would have expected. We decide we want more. The pain and pleasure has come and gone often enough that we are comfortable and we can immerse in the joy. The balance and the trust is coupled with the exhilaration of new lands and empty roads. Time has no hold on us, we continue.

“In a way this was one of the best and most memorable bike rides I have ever taken. In a car one would have sought out a freeway, one of the notorious concrete arteries, and would never have seen any of this stuff. Riding for hours…was visceral and heartbreaking- in ways that looking at ancient ruins aren’t. I recommend it." David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

Today we climbed toward Bernia Mountain, the full loop is 30 kilometers and the views are not only beautiful but the landscape is silent. You know how I feel about silence, just the sound of our breath as we climbed straight up. We climbed for 8 KM then whoooosh down hill, down hill, down hill.

David Byrne in his book travels to many different cities on several different continents, some, which were surprising, like Manila and others  more expected like London or San Francisco. The 42 pages of American cities are a perfect snapshot reflecting my lifetime. His perspective includes, time before revitalization of cities through the regeneration of these same urban areas in the 21st century. He notes some of the urban planning mistakes in our era and as a rider, he endures some of the consequences

“ Various disastrous urban renewal schemes of the 1960’s and the 1970’s have yet to be undone. A beautiful freeway cuts the North side in two, insulating the stadiums and all their attendant businesses from the local neighborhoods.” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

This morning I noticed as we pedal through the village, it is like we are moving through a castle with hallways that are made for royalty. The roads are quiet and simply beautiful. The materials are stone and brick and residents are out washing the sidewalks, watering the plants, and painting the walls. Everyone is present. Nothing here is an imitation of some image seen on television. American malls and even neighborhoods are imitations of this; a real village where the community works together to be the heart of the system.

Our cities, Byrne says,

“are physical manifestations of our deepest beliefs and our often-unconscious thoughts…. Our values and hopes are sometimes awfully embarrassingly easy to read. They’re right there- in our storefronts, museums temples, shops and office buildings and in how the structures interrelate and how sometimes they don’t. They say, in their unique visual language, “ This is what we think matters, this is how we live and how we play. Riding a bike through all this is like navigating the collective neural pathways of some vast global mind.” David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries

I guess I’ll stop here although the ride continues and I haven’t quite finished Byrne’s book. I still have two chapters to go. I guess that means Bicycle Diaries will continue. Perhaps I will write about one of our loops around Parcent or Murla or Orba? Perhaps I will gain more understanding of the yoga practice and how it relates to riding?

“Ride a bike in Istanbul? Are you nuts? Yes… and no." David Byrne, Bicycle Diaries