After _____ by Mary Mulvihill
There is no hope –
deep in the soul, below
the reeling shock.
the heart still beats
in the body, in the
world as we know it, barely
scratching the surface, so much
mystery – unreasonable
pain, risk, feeling
for the light, questioning
will be healing, truly
limits of a being, full
of confusion, who needs,
loves, dreams, rises,
darkness – a crevasse
between soul & spirit, shattered
in places, completely
humbled. On my knees.
I review everything: signs
symptoms, tiny shifts
of inflection, find no
answer. Bereft, I
can only witness, listen,
ask the questions – .
by the smallest thing. Hard
even to read. The wound,
the deep capacity needed
to go on
is reached only
beyond language by
poets who can still imagine
God, the universe
unripped by its seams.
Horned Grebe at Mansion Hill Pond by Robert Bohanan
Today at 8:47am
Golden tuftsMasks red eyes glimpsed before you dove.
Only ripples on the surface of the pond betray your presence.
We see you only for a moment – yet a moment that lingered
Long enough for my feet to catch up with my mind.
An In-Body Experience by Kim Allen
I had the fortunate opportunity recently to participate in a six-day hands-on human dissection workshop. In my Buddhist practice, I have always been drawn to investigating both the body and death, and was amazed to find a chance to do so within our Western culture, which usually avoids and denies death. The workshop was mainly intended for bodyworkers – massage therapists, chiropractors, structural integrationists, etc. – as a means of deepening the understanding of their chosen medium. When I called the instructor to explain my interest in participating as a spiritual practice, he said cheerily, “Oh, I get at least one Buddhist every time!”
The course description stated that “By unwrapping the layers of the donor’s gift, participants uncover hidden layers of themselves.” I decided to treat the course as a retreat. I told colleagues and friends that I wouldn’t be on email, arranged to stay at a quiet house, and packed my cushion along with my lab coat and nitrile gloves. The retreat analogy proved to be apt for the way the course unfolded.
Day 1: Arriving
Thirty people came together to share a task quite different from daily life. We began by standing in a circle and appreciating the gifts of the donors, silently beholding the four forms that would teach us that week. We set up an “offering table,” on which we could place objects of inspiration throughout the course. Our guide seeded it with a seashell. Rather than opening to the enormity of the whole undertaking, I focused my effort simply on being there, fully arriving. I attended carefully to the initial instructions on how to use a scalpel. Addressing the skin layer first, we removed the mask shown to the outer world.
Day 2: The Slog
Here we encountered the oft-avoided adipose (fat) layer – and we had no choice but to go through it. Our experienced guide helped us understand that due to superficial societal mores, the adipose is misperceived; it is a whole organ unto itself, rarely appreciated or fully opened to. The emotional current in the room ran high, bringing feelings of repulsion, over-stimulation, pain, compassion, and the associated story-making. I found myself wondering if I could I really undertake the tasks of the whole week. Later, at home, I took a long, hot shower and had an unsettled sitting. The next day, one woman reported crying in her hotel room for no discernable reason, while another spoke hotly of her complaints about the workshop. Many flowers appeared on the offering table.
Day 3: Energy
The deep fascia and muscle layers brought surprising buoyancy. Spontaneous peals of laughter erupted across the room at one point, and our forms took on a sporty, well-toned look. At last there was a feeling of “settling in” to our unusual activity. On a lark, I picked up a partially opened pine cone for the offering table, and saw that others had added candles and feathers. And yet, I had an intuitive sense that this happy reprieve was temporary, serving mostly to gird us for the deeper work to come. We received instruction on using hemostats and tweezers to probe the tissues more delicately. It was becoming clear that the “layers” of the body, while clearly distinct, were nonetheless created by the tools. Nothing in the body is truly separate; the tissues literally interpenetrate, and are everywhere infused with nerves and vessels.
In sitting that evening, my mind was a little too quiet, as if concealing part of itself.
Day 4-5: Deep Spelunking
Here we penetrated to the heart of the body, revealing the organs that sustain life and cause death. Each form had its own oddities, of which the person was likely unaware – for example, a large intestine barely wider than the small intestine, and an extra muscle unaccounted for in medical texts. We also witnessed the features accumulated through life experience: Artificial heart valves, a stent in the abdominal aorta, and a Pillcam that had not completed its tortuous trek through the gut. Although the excitement of discovery evoked fountains of energy in me, I also connected with a stillness deep in my being, punctuated by awe. I was unprepared for the emotional impact of holding a human heart, which in turn holds the Universe. For the offering table, I drew a mandala using colored pencils, my intention at each moment simply to pick up the next color that felt right and draw the next shape that occurred. It came out swirly and interconnected, pink, coral, ochre, and fuchsia, with a streak of leaf green. These are the colors of the body; the warm tones persist even in the chill of death.
In my sitting that evening, I sat like the ocean, immovable and ever-flowing.
Day 6: Emptiness and Letting Go
On the last day, we sought the innermost spaces, penetrating the brain, spinal cord, and bone marrow. My own nerves tingled eerily as I slipped the cord out of the fortress of the spinal column so that it dangled freely from the primitive hindbrain like a ponytail. We were at the core, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that we did not find the person, and no part was more important than another. There is nothing in the body but relationships; untangle these, and the form is empty. Finally, with simple and profound gratitude, we let the forms go. After holding hands in a hushed circle, we packed them in plain brown boxes to ship to the crematory and back to their families. Upon hearing that we were allowed to add objects from the offering table, I gently placed the mandala over the tender heart that had inspired it. Warm seawater spilled from my eyes.
Our group’s thirty lives went on, but surely each had a shift in its course. The outside looks different after seeing the inside – although the resemblance between the two also increases.
A powerful experience like this offers many lessons and opportunities for insight. For me, the strongest impression was anatta, not-self. The tissues of this body grew by some deeply organized process, coalescing out of their surroundings like a shell from the seawater, mysterious and unfathomable. There came a clear sense of disidentification, a knowing that the process is impersonal and devoid of a creator. This form is a manifestation of… what? Of birth – and its consequences.
Exploring the body is simultaneously an act of creation and destruction. The parts of the body have no unique existence, but rather are defined by the cutting tools and the idea and intention of the person dissecting. Each layer is created as it is explored. However, in order to perceive the body in one way, other ways must be abandoned: To see the heart in situ, the bone structure must be grossly altered by clipping the ribs. To bring forth the nerves of the leg, the vessels and muscles must be partially sacrificed. No view is complete, though each is instructive. I noticed how often my mind balked at destroying a part in order to learn about another part; I wanted to retain it all.
In the end, despite encountering the profound alienness of this form, the most ordinary, everyday result of the workshop is a stronger connection to my body. At one level, simply having seen how the muscles are rigged to the skeleton, where the organs sit, and the way the whole body is wrapped cozily in fascia, I have a better intuition in making movements. And at a different level, there is simply greater ease of being. My tai chi has improved. My breathing is a little freer.
With gratitude, I bow to the body – this one that serves as my own vehicle, and all the others that sit, stand, walk, and lie down during their days of animation. I bow to the body as a vehicle of skillful action, and as a vehicle of insight. Soon enough, the one we see in the mirror will be cast off like a shell by a being who has always floated in the ocean. Until then, may we walk with grace.
So Much Light by Carolyn Dille
There is so much light today in every spider's strand too many to countin gnats' wings against the sun in each cell of each leaf of bay and oak. So much light I haven't seen my self.
Surprised by Marianna Tubman
At the end of a recent Dharma talk, Gil Fronsdal invited attendees to answer various questions about their practice including “what has surprised you?” I realized that one of my surprises was a breakthrough insight I had during a walking meditation. Another happened while listening to a song.
I have been reading Darlene Cohen’s book The One Who Is Not Busy – Connecting With Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way” for the IMC Dharma Book Discussion Group, and doing what I can of the recommended practices. My busyness tends to be at home, and I don’t have much time to do exercises or meditation when I’m there. I commute to San Francisco via public transit and walk from the train station or bus stop to my workplace. This is a time when my mind often gets caught up in ruminations and worrying about the state budget crisis, homeless people, or trash running into the ocean and killing sea-life. It can be hard for me to shake these thoughts. So, I tried Cohen’s walking meditations during my morning walk from the train to work.
Practice # 3 in the book is a walking meditation in which one practices alternating focus between different objects of awareness. One morning I tried noticing what I liked to look at for a few minutes, then noticing what I didn’t like to look at.
In the somewhat rundown South of Market neighborhood, it was hard to find things I liked to look at, but I found a few things – neat brick walls, blue sky, flat sidewalks, a few nicely dressed people. (I ignored the dirty homeless person since I was focusing on the positive). The real surprise was when I tried focusing on what I didn’t like. I realized that there isn’t really much I don’t like! Nothing evoked strong feelings of dislike. For those that did stir up dislike, when I didn’t start analyzing it, or making judgments, the feeling did not last long at all. I didn’t have to return to thoughts of gratitude or notice the blue sky to let go of negative thoughts; the thoughts just left as I moved on and asked myself “now what don’t I like?” It was one of my most pleasant walks to work.
The second surprise was listening to a favorite song, “If a Tree Falls” by Bruce Cockburn, which is about the destruction of rainforests and the consequent loss of species. The song has very powerful lyrics, and I find the rhythm and guitar playing is mesmerizing. I have listened to it many times.
“If a tree falls in the forest… does anybody hear” is the main refrain. As I listen to it, I sometimes think of trees and whether anyone notices an individual tree dying. Sometimes I think of people and wonder who really notices an individual human death, or when an individual falls on hard times (sickness, homelessness, unemployment). For what seemed like the first time one morning, I tuned into the wording of the full refrain: “If a tree falls in the forest … does anybody hear… the FOREST fall?” It is not just about noticing the fate of the individual tree. It is about being aware of the bigger change that is going on, such as the loss of the forest ecology, which is at first only visible or audible through smaller events.
Since I have the thinking habit of generalizing from individual to greater pattern – one of the challenges of my walk to work – it’s odd that I haven’t noticed this in the refrain of the song. This is probably because I am conditioned to expect the sentence to be completed “does anybody hear it (the TREE) fall?”
It seems to me there are many things in life which are like this, where we are aware of things being done to or by individuals but don’t see the greater picture, or, we have something repeated to us over and over but miss the precise message. Sometimes the message doesn’t get through until one is in the right state of mind or has listened many times. That’s one reason I like to listen to talks on Audio Dharma and re-listen to those that especially resonate with me.
Buddhists often focus on compassion for the suffering of the individual, and emphasize our common humanity – that the kind of suffering they experience is the same as ours – but usually don’t see so clearly the way that suffering can be part of a larger pattern. For example, to me a homeless man is not just the result of individual behavior or misfortune. He is the most visible sign of much larger societal problems. Thousands of people on low-lying islands are being made homeless due to worldwide carbon emissions and other activities which accelerate global warming. Societal changes, natural disasters, and a range of individual actions cause whole villages, organizations, cultures, species, and even ecosystems to vanish. Sometimes bit by bit, sometimes all at once – but these losses are much more than the sum of the individuals lost or affected, and can have far-reaching effects around the globe.
I’m afraid we tend to overlook the way that our individual actions collectively contribute to widespread suffering and destruction. It is not enough to have good intentions in our direct interactions, due to the far-reaching nature of so many activities. We can easily see the individual ant that we step on or don’t step on, or the homeless person helped by a donation to a food bank. We don’t usually see the deadly effects of our carelessly discarded plastic trash washed out to sea, the greenhouse gases from the electricity used by our computers, the forests cut down for magazines and toilet paper. But these are a much bigger and more significant part of the world’s reality.
The challenge for me is to be aware of the bigger picture of neglect and destruction which is indirectly visible through the individual incidents, objects and stories I come in contact with, and still be able to hold in my awareness that the world in front of me is something I don’t dislike. Can I notice the dirty homeless person, feel compassion, consider the society which contributes to homelessness, and not get caught up in anger or hopelessness? Can I love and enjoy the ordinary world and its inhabitants, without turning a blind eye to the pattern of selfish behaviors and ignorant neglect that threaten the life of this planet?
Rooster in the Night by Gerry Sarnat
The shadows in earnest, candles sputter,
burn molecules might fuel extra hours not to be.
Ears ring, cheeks turn pink
imagining my love imagine me.
She sings the song of her soul these forty-nine days
I sit with the urn, cry stars into her ashen sky.
The valley of shadows disorders time
as I fumble prayer beads.
My thumbs feel a scuffle to take earthly leave,
hurtle away on cinnamon bardo wings.
Funneled through dusk’s gray cocoon melee,
untethered, a radiant silk moth dawns past mourning.