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Depression, Expectation, Liberation

. . . thus, it is good to be clear about the nature of our expectations: when I am an awakened being, it will look like this. It will feel like this. Others will respond to me in this way. And so forth.

Expectation, even though it is directed at the future, is predicated on the past. No – it is the past. That is where our ideas come from. We met or read about someone who professed to be awake, and we began to associate and free-associate. Over time – all that reading and studying and watching videos and going to workshops in the interest of enlightenment, of spiritual liberation, et cetera – those associations become a sort of fixed object: the awakened self. Our awakened self.

Thus, awakening – which is not a future event but a present cognition of a present reality – is largely or altogether missed because it doesn’t fit our prearranged ideal. Our seeking constructs a model that neatly, nearly perfectly makes finding anything impossible. We are too busy reading A Course in Miracles, or studying the 20th century advaitists, or meditating, or admiring our vegetarianism, or writing about awakening and so forth.

None of those things are bad in and of themselves, of course. It’s just that in the ultimate sense, A Course in Miracles isn’t any more significant than Danielle Steele. Consuming life in the form of plants isn’t morally superior to consuming it in the form of a chicken. And so forth. Yes, yes, we have to make decisions and live some way, but the point is that awakening is not contingent on those decisions. Awakening is not conditional. It is not contingent on any external appearance or construction or circumstance. Our belief to the contrary is what makes seeing this simple truth impossible.

We could put it this way: what we are in truth is altogether unaffected by our decision to eat meat, or to have an affair, or to be an ACIM student rather than a Buddhist, or to write poetry rather than ad copy for Budweiser, and so forth. Life does not stop because of our ideas about life – because of our standards or preferences. It doesn’t even change because of those ideas. It just is.

. . . truth is constant, and implies a state where vacillations are impossible . . . happiness in changing form that shifts with time and place is an illusion that has no meaning (T-21.VII.10:5, 13:1).

A little over a year ago I had an insight about giving attention, which subsequently and profoundly transformed my practice which, in turn and time, changed my experience of self and other. About six months after that insight, in the midst of its burgeoning effects, I began to have a sneaking suspicion that it was time to stop being so desperately and frantically consumptive, especially with respect to spiritual and philosophical texts. The time for learning was over; the time for application was now.

I beheld the clarity of Tara Singh.

The only Truth is “What Is.”

Only in Truth duality ends.

In thought, concept, dogma, belief systems, there is always conflict.

If you cannot harness the energy of a Truth, then you only know the words.

(Gifts from the Retreat 16-17)

I became determined to harness Truth: and I am here to tell you: Truth is like a horse that misses us and secretly wants to come home. It will not resist our harness. It draws vividly near even as we become aware of our desire that it drawn near. How lovely! How accommodating!

How infuriating!

Because slowly – slowly but certainly – I began to get angry. Deeply angry. At first I didn’t understand it; perhaps it was just a prolonged mood? But then I began to see that what had once delighted me – the chickadees, the black bears, the tracks of the moose, games within language, the fall of the light just so – did not any longer. Or rather, I saw through the loveliness, saw through the delight. The loveliness of these objects was not compromised, but their meaning certainly was.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I was finally seeing the content behind the form: and the content was nothing but all the junk I projected: thoughts and memories and ideas and stories and landscapes and images and sounds and themes and this and that and holy Christ what an ugly tangled mess it made. Every time my heart leaped and my voice rose in song, this enormous ruinous welter of the projected self, of the self-made self, presented itself, and I fell silent. The chickadees and cardinals, the black bears and moose, the birch trees and fire ponds, the moon and the stars, collections of poetry and black-and-white photographs of my grandmothers when they were young . . . all of it was hostage to the ego, tortured by the ego into a desperate attempt to keep itself going.

In other words, what I had called joy was a lie with a singular goal: perpetuation of the separate self, regardless of the resultant tides of guilt and sorrow caused thereby.

If you seek to separate out certain aspects of the totality and look to them to meet your imagined needs, you are attempting to use separation to save you. How then could guilt not enter? For separation is the source of guilt, and to appeal to it for salvation is to believe you are alone . . . to experience yourself as alone is to deny the Oneness of the Father and His Son, and thus to attack reality (T-15.V.2:3-7).

I was angry because I did not want to see the truth of what I was doing, because to see the truth of it, was to know that one had to give it up. And how could I do that? How do you jettison a lifetime of specialness? How could a chickadee be just another bird? How could my writing about A Course in Miracles be just more blather? And so forth.

Please do not rush to tell me that I am wrong here. Or that it will all be okay. Please do not prattle about how special relationships are translated into holy relationships and so forth (T-15.V.8:1). I have read that, too. I have prattled thusly. I am saying something else here, or trying to. I am saying that we must meet experience where it is, which meeting requires rigorous honesty, and that to call this meeting unpleasant may be to understate the case dramatically.

I am saying that when we at last perceive the illusory nature of the world, that some of us must go through a period of anger and regret and bitterness. I am sure there are those who skip lightly through this stage and struggle with others, but I am not one of them. It hurt, and the hurt did not instantly or readily dissolve. And, because it hurt and kept on hurting, resistance entered.

Resistance takes many forms, one of which – for me the most cunning and resilient of which – is an interest in its many forms. I just love to study my apparent failures under the guise of getting better someday. Yet as soon as we are focused on form, we are distracted from Truth. Not permanently but presently, which is entirely sufficient unto the ego’s needs.

Thus, if I felt that consumption of spiritual texts was no longer called for, I doubled down on my study of them. Nisargadatta, Martin Buber, Shih-t’ou and so on. If the Holy Spirit said zig, I zagged, and when the Holy Spirit said zag, I zigged. I extended the proverbial middle finger resolutely, unrepentantly. Suck on this, Jesus. Pressed to admit that chickadees were neither lovelier nor holier than grackles or June bugs, I wrote a ten-thousand word treatise on the sacred blessing only chickadees could impart.

And oh how it didn’t work. And oh how I began to depress, to become depressed, my stumbling reduced to a crawl, my crawl reduced to blindly clutching fistfuls of dust. Nothing worked, and the unworkability of it bled slowly through my life – my work, my relationships, my walks, my wordiness. I couldn’t go forward as I was called to go, and going back wasn’t any better. Everywhere I turned I saw the same bleak possibilities, no one of which struck me as palatable, passable, viable. In no metaphorical way, my prison became very clear and very tight. I fell asleep to the clinking of chains and woke to the utter absence of light in which every moment was a recitation of my death sentence.

Now it is important to acknowledge that this condition is in its way a blessing – from the outside looking in it is a blessing – but it cannot possibly be perceived as such from within the experience. A prison is a prison; the willing prisoner and the informed prisoner and the optimistic prisoner are still prisoners.

Shih-t’ou said:

The spiritual source shines clear in the light;
the branching streams flow on in the dark.
Grasping at things is surely delusion;
according with sameness is still not enlightenment.

It is important to see that the prison is constructed of ideals: thought makes it: it is thought itself. The world isn’t doing anything to us – life is just life, impersonal and neutral, flowing and evolving, unconditioned by the past and unaffected by the future. But our thoughts and perceptions – the workings of our so-called inner life – when unacknowledged, these become the dense web of illusion in which our entanglement becomes the very essence of loss and grief and confusion. It cannot be said enough: we confuse our thoughts about reality for reality. Stop giving thought such primacy – let it be the equivalent of bird songs and waterfalls and eighteen-wheelers a mile or more away – and everything will settle quite nicely.

But of course – again, critically – it doesn’t make a whit of difference to say this. But to finally make contact with the seeming realness of it all – to stop pretending that the prison is a beautiful landscape, or a perfect kiss, or a great poem, or a clear star on the horizon in winter . . . To just see that we are entrapped by thought and haven’t got the first fucking clue how to get out . . . That is something.

In a sense I am saying it is very important to see hell as hell, and to really accept it as such . . . You will know you are there when there is no way out, no possibility of hope, when there is no intellectual comfort whatsoever . . . Don’t resist this but rather embrace it, in the sense of not trying to change it, or pretend it’s anything else. Don’t look for the crack through which the light seeps; just sink into the darkness.

If we do not embrace our hatred of God, then we will not be able to finally know God as Love. There is no way out but through the Hate and Guilt and Fear, all of which is hidden by meaningless dreams of Love, our cheap hymns to health and happiness that are grounded not in experience but wishful thinking.

Shih-t’ou said:

In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness;
In the dark there is light,
but don’t see it as light.

So what happens? Here is what is happened for me, which won’t be what happens for you, because your path is not my path, even though we are walking together, calling to one another in darkness and fog, like hikers on the trail, separated by great distance, but perhaps it will still be helpful.

One morning you wake up and the prison is there: the hopelessness is there: the sentence of death life has laid on your bones chokes and strangles you and you wish only that the end would come, the sooner the better. And you say then from the rotting pit of your heart, from the wretched depths of what you have made of yourself, in a faint whisper no angel would recognize as language: “there must be another way.”

That was how Bill Thetford put it. Shih-t’ou adds:

Hearing the words, understand the meaning;
don’t set up standards of your own.
If you don’t understand the Way right before you,
how will you know the path as you walk?
Progress is not a matter of far or near,
but if you are confused, mountains and rivers block your way.

How simply the veils part when we stop insisting they be veils. How the jail cell dissolves when we make inquiry of the prisoner. How readily the path unfolds before our feet when we stop trying to go anywhere. And how soft your hand is in mine, Belove, when I no longer beg to hold it.


Lanterns when Candles will Do

A clarity of dreaming such that I awoke briefly answered, knowing only that what is given must be given care, and naturally – thusly – gives itself away. The dog stretches beside me, both of us bearing a memory of hard winds at 4 a.m., or possibly we are yet borne by those winds. One is never more here than when remembering from whence they came. Stop obsessing about the terms and condition of arrival, the old dog says during one of his visits from the vale of awareness where he lately resides, possibly forever young. Often we turn to lanterns when candles will do, and candles when it is critical to sit quietly in the darkness, unafraid of loving without an object. You are writing the song for me now, and despite my stubbornness and lack of elegance and resistance to grace, I am grateful, very grateful. Rivers, starlight, cardinals, bread. Setting the symbols aside, what remains? I met you in that emptiness, and we walked a little, and we are walking there still, and the walk is opening to other walkers, too.


Three Poems about Chickadees


chickadees linger
at the feeder:
I put them in a poem
and celebrate
our continued imprisonment


on the back fence
and now in this poem –
at the end of grasping
are these always empty hands


morning forest
filled with frozen buddhas
and chickadees singing them awake



Unaware of the Light We Are

In general, we are unaware of the light we are, the love we are. “Light” and “love” are just words, of course, which opens up all kinds of possibility for confusion and projection, but still. We don’t need to be enlightened; we need to see we are enlightened – naturally, right now, as is.

Yesterday I was sharing with someone and in the middle of the dialogue she said something – a few words, half a sentence – and I saw clearly that she was perfect. She was whole and perfect and there was not a single thing that needed to happen or unhappen. It was all finished.

Please understand I mean this in the simplest way possible: there was no light show, no angels, no mysterious voices or invisible choirs. It was all as plain and simple and easy as a hamburger. I just saw this friend precisely as she was in that moment, and she was perfect. It was as if I actually knew what I was talking about when I say there are no secrets, there are no mysteries.

Nor was this “seeing” a result of anything I do or don’t do. It didn’t reflect learning or study or diligence. It wasn’t a reward and it wasn’t a product. It was more in the nature of a happy accident caused by relative inattention. I mean that when we stop looking for it, there it is. And it was always there – it was always this – and this is it.

Yet this individual does not consider herself perfect. I know this because she says so, and we talk about it from time to time, our shared imperfection and what we are doing and not doing to rectify it. Psychotherapy, hallucinogenics, A Course in Miracles, 7-day sesshin, fasting, long walks in the forest, crystals and so forth.

Please forgive me a bit of intellectualism here, a bit of reason (where reason really needs to put on a propeller beanie and bounced around on a pogo stick). My first impulse was to try and convey this perfection to my friend. This was instantly followed by the realization it would do no good because there is really no way to translate vision into words. And finally, I saw with great clarity that we can only perceive in another what lies in us untended. The perfection was not my friend’s – and it was not mine – it was ours. My friend does not see the light in her; I do not see the light in me. But the light is there regardless.

Thus, for a moment – briefly – I too was perfect and whole. We were perfect and whole together, because that is the only way to be whole and perfect. And it passed, of course, which was okay, but its effects lingered, like the way the sky is still bright and lovely even after the sun has fallen below the horizon.

How happy I was, and am, to be in the company of those who give themselves that I might see at last I am not broken, not lonely, and not doomed. How amazed I am, and how grateful.


This Little Fire

Look, if you don’t want to write, don’t. Who cares? The chickadees are still fluttering around the winter feeder; the cardinal is still preening on the north-facing fence. So I want to see you naked, so what? So you are trying to grade papers and write your poems and make your own suet for the feeder. It’s okay that you think you are failing. It’s okay that you can’t sleep. I don’t want you to be anything you don’t want to be. I don’t want you on your knees if it’s not a prayer and I don’t want you to sing where silence is a better choice. You tell me you can’t find your way. You tell me you’re lost – that the cities are empty, the plains smoking, and the moon fallen deep into the sea. It’s okay. You can stumble around in the snow for lifetimes, forgetting why you set out in the first place. It’s okay. I have this little fire, I have this cup of tea. I am waiting in this hole in the mountain. Come closer now and rest. Rest in my arms, that I might rest in yours. My love, my savior, my red-within-red, do you see how the cave mouth shines?


Yesterday’s Crumbs

chickadees picking through
yesterday’s crumbs –
we are not here to learn
but to recognize


That Which Obscures

Even the articulation of “the present” – what A Course in Miracles calls the holy instant – is a concept, because both perception and conception require time. Whatever the present is – even if if is – it is obscured entirely by perception and concept.

And if we are honest, most of us, we will see that we are always perceiving and conceiving, and giving attention to what is perceived and conceived, and trying to shape this welter into some desirable spiritual insight or state. We are always thinking, and taking thought seriously, as if it were reality itself.

Thus, I write by the window and a chickadee rests on the snowy oak tree by the fence. It is a kind of loveliness and light to me; a harbinger of the holy instant, the now, but in fact it is none of that. It’s just another image, and just another response, no different than the countless others which I experience as “my” life.

What do I mean by this? I mean I identify the chickadees as this kind of bird and not another. I tap into a host of past associations – ideas, feelings, pictures – and choose those which manifest my special relationship with chickadees. This happens blindingly fast, of course, but it happens in time – it is important to see this and not deny it. It is many things as a result, but it is not the present.

The operation of our subjective experience necessarily renders the present a concept which we subsequently try to plaster onto this or that experience. This can be a very subtle movement but it is still a movement. We aren’t bad people or unserious people – we are simply trapped in the mind’s split which forces us into the subject/object paradigm. It’s not a crime; but it’s not very helpful either.

The old Zen master Huang Po said that mind cannot be reached by mind. The very act of trying – the very search itself – becomes the obstacle. We are dogs chasing our tails. Try to find the present – try to find your real self – and you are instantly precluded from both.

What is to be done then when doing anything at all is an impediment? I have no answer to this, of course. You can’t talk your way out of a paradox. “Mind cannot be reached by mind.” In my experience of A Course in Miracles, a relatively diligent study and application of the daily lessons brings one to this essential paradox of dualism – the gateless barrier – which, in a funny way, is sort of the beginning.

A sort of beginning in which a sort of equilibrium is called for, in which one is no longer trying to be “light” and “love,” nor “emptiness” or “egoless” nor any point in between. How one arrives at this balance is personal and intimate, reflecting the nothing-to-be-done-that-only-you-can-do, to paraphrase Tara Singh.

And really, to say this much is to say too much, but to say less would not necessarily be any better. Virtue and its opposite are apparently boundless. There is a chickadee on the oak tree, there is a storm that is not a storm, and there is a breath drawn that draws us, drawing drawing, and so forth.