A brief word of wisdom

Today for the time I met with my therapist of three years’ standing via online video, aka “telehealth”. We had a couple of “glitches in the matrix”, as he said, but otherwise our session was pretty normal. I carried away from it, as Pooh Bear would carry a jar of honey into a corner to get properly acquainted with it, this small nugget which I now share with you:

It feels better when you do the thing.

It can be hard to do the thing, if you are oppressed and depressed by the current pandemic and all its ramifications. It can be even harder if you suffer from depression anyway and now have the current situation to cope with on top of that. But you will feel better when you do the thing.

The thing may be the hours at home you owe your job, or the exercise you’re not getting because you don’t have to go to work, or showering when nobody is around to see (or smell) you, or the meditation or yoga or spiritual practice you’ve been telling yourself you’d get to. Whatever it is, how big or little, how mundane or spiritual, if it’s your thing, you will feel better if you do the thing. wordpress-265132_640

I know I do. I’m doing one of the things right now.

In this world / we walk on the roof of hell / gazing at flowers

dogwoodinbloomI don’t know why, but the haiku I quoted in my title came to mind tonight. Of course it is obvious why: Issa might have written this poem yesterday, as everything is blooming while we are confined to our homes and people are dying and essential workers are at risk. The hell of it, to me, is not just the deaths of people around the world, but the selfish terrorists in my own country who are insisting that things re-open so they can go to bars, get haircuts, and see movies.

In this world, we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers. But the flowers are no less real than the hell. In Buddhism, there are numerous hells full of suffering, punishment for evil deeds, but they are no more permanent than human life. There are also beautiful heavens that reward the good, but they, too, are impermanent. Karma is less a reward than a kind of fuel, and whether it’s good or bad, punishment or reward, it burns out eventually. Nirvana is the only way out.

It’s an ideal rather than a reality, but I lean toward the Vajrayana, Tantric idea that nirvana and samsara are the same thing. Samsara, the merry-go-round of karma created and then burned off, of rebirth in conditioned reality, is no different than nirvana, the fullness of freedom and enlightenment–if you are enlightened. Robert Thurman says, in his excellent book The Jewel Tree of Tibet (I am paraphrasing), that to a bodhisattva, the worst sufferings of this world seem no more real than a child’s insistence that there’s a monster under the bed; however, the bodhisattva still helps the suffering, even as a good parent still comforts the child and offers a defense against the imaginary monster.

The bodhisattva already knows that the ultimate reality is joy, is bliss. Julian of Norwich also says, more concisely, “Bliss is lasting, pain is passing.” I believe that, in the sense that I trust the saints, adepts, and bodhisattvas who tell me so, without yet fully experiencing it for myself. So what about walking on the roof of hell? Hell is real, just as the flowers are real, but hell is not all there is to the underworld, just as spring flowers are not all there is to this world. While we are shivering in ice storms and it seems winter will never end, the faery realm below the hills is still feasting in perpetual summer.

If I understand it correctly, the most basic message of Buddhism is that we suffer because we want things our way, and therefore our best practice is to stop wanting things our way and accept whatever happens. That is an extreme simplification of the first stages of Buddhist teaching, I know. But European religious and magical traditions tend to affirm that desire is legitimate and there is some chance of getting what we want, so it’s acceptable to pursue what we want within certain ethical guidelines (such as not murdering people, violating laws of kinship or hospitality or sexual fidelity, or hoarding wealth and resources to the detriment of others). 

There are hints in European folklore, especially in Celtic countries, that the Otherworld is a mirror of our own, rather like the north and south hemispheres of our planet. If it is summer here, it is winter there; if one dies in this world, one is born into the other. If we are walking on the roof of hell here, while the flowers bloom, perhaps in the Otherworld they are joyful and at peace even if the trees are bare. If we cannot venture very far afield in this world because of the coronavirus, we can still cross over into the Other and bring back something of hope and joy.

The end of the world as we know it

It really is, you know.

Because the world after this pandemic isn’t going to be the same as the world before it. I don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I am certain it’s going to be different.

The word “apocalypse” literally means unveiling. In a way it should only be applied to a genre of literature, writing that, like the Revelations of St. John, reveals what is to come. Yet arguably, the author of Revelations didn’t see his text as a prediction of the future; he saw it as an unveiling, an expose, if you will, of the reality of the world he lived in. He was trying to say that that world belonged to God and the Lamb-who-was-slain, the victorious resurrected Christ, and not to Caesar. He was trying to tell his small, isolated congregations that their fearful house meetings for worship were participation in a celestial and cosmic liturgy that had no end.

Our current apocalypse is revealing a lot of things, some good, some ill. It is revealing how we really are all connected, via airplanes and other forms of transportation, via television and other forms of popular culture, via the internet and all its resources of information and news and social media. Those global interconnections mean someone can get on a plane in China and get off in the United States and bring a virus with them, yes; they also mean that I can communicate with friends who live in England or Italy, the Midwest or the West Coast, or even Australia. I think our global interconnectedness is good, on balance.

It’s also revealing just how much wealth, how many resources, are being selfishly hoarded by those who don’t need them, who are now reluctantly loosening their grip just a bit, now that the need is dire, and even if they are motivated less by genuine compassion and kindness than by the desire not to look like they actively desire people’s deaths. (Yes, I admit, I am thinking the worst of some people. Not going to apologize.) There are, of course, a few billionaires and world leaders who seem not to care if they do look like they want the poor and disenfranchised to die. I hope we remember who they are and what they did when this pandemic is over.

The pandemic is revealing that most people want to help their neighbors, that scientists want to solve problems and improve conditions, that artists want to share their work, that even introverts (like myself) need face-to-face, embodied human contact, that our animal companions are an even bigger blessing than we thought. The pandemic is revealing that a few, a very few people are genuinely selfish, caring only for themselves and what they can grasp–and they are outnumbered.

It’s the end of the world as we have known it. I am grieving the deaths, I am raging at the selfish bastards making it harder for the rest of us, but I am also tending and treasuring a tiny spark of hope because we can build a new world, and the hands that build it, the minds and hearts, will be numerous, more diverse, more creative than ever before.

Snapshot, 6 April 2020

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An excellent book on writing and life

My brief as a writer, as I see it, my emotional acre, to borrow a metaphor from Anne Lamott’s excellent book Bird by Bird, is a certain intertwining of spirituality, sexuality, and creativity. This intertwining or overlap or interconnection fuels my poetry; it has dominated the spiritual seeking I’ve begun to try to document in this month’s blog entries; it’s the thematic territory of my fiction. It’s what makes my engine tick.

So I don’t say much about, for example, ecology, or feminism, or current affairs, because they’re not part of my emotional acre. Other people have the gifts and the drive to write about those topics, and the many others on which I don’t comment, and that is a good thing. I assume that after people have been reading me a while, they either like the kind of thing I write and stick around for more of it, or go somewhere else to read another writer with a different focus.

The fact remains, though, that while I haven’t mentioned it, I’m living in the United States in the middle of a global pandemic. I am, to quote a useful Twitter post, not so much “working from home” as home and trying to work, to put in a few hours a week toward my paying job, in the middle of a crisis. I am at somewhat higher risk than average because I’m over fifty, diabetic, and hypertensive. I also have depression and anxiety, which I manage with medication and with therapy.

So I’m writing to you from a small studio apartment that I share with my companion of twenty years, my cockatiel Rembrandt. In three weeks I’ve seen very few people other than the cashiers at my grocery store. I just saw my therapist for the first time in over two weeks; he’s been out of the office on family business that was planned well before we knew we were having an epidemic. I’ve missed our sessions, and honestly, there are times when I just curl up on the bed, pile my stuffed animals on top of me, and try to breathe, because it feels like the depression has got me again.

It hasn’t, though. I have the good fortune to have what everybody ought to have–a secure job, healthcare, enough money and food. I have the comfort of my bird friend and connections with online friends, although I miss seeing people face to face. And I’ve been able to keep writing.

Tonight I don’t have any reminiscences to offer you, no stories or poems. Only a snapshot of life in the time of pandemic, a reminder that we’re all in this together. I will try to keep on writing.