MattAndJojang's Blog

God. Life. Spirituality.

Posts Tagged ‘Darkness

Stepping in the Dark: How to Practice with Koans

leave a comment »

Walking in the Dark

Photo: ProStockMedia

Step by step in the dark, if my foot’s not wet, I’ve found the stone.

–Zen Koan

When you’re walking in the dark, it’s good to have a friend to keep you company. And sometimes your friend will say something you hadn’t thought of, and that’s helpful. And sometimes they will say something that you don’t quite understand, but it makes you curious, and aware that there’s something going on you hadn’t noticed. Keeping company like this, while walking in the dark, changes how you experience your life in a way that stays with you.

From a few moments after language blinked into existence, humans have tried to hold onto the words that accompany such mysterious moments of insight. We have etched them on bones, written them on papyrus scrolls, attached them to the refrigerator with a magnet. A bit more than a millennium ago people in China started to call these sayings koans. Koans are records of conversations, bits of verse, and stories. Soon there were great collections of koans and people discovered they were a transformative meditation practice. It appears that koans came out of a very old tradition of improvised spoken word poetry, art that crystallized out of a particular moment. Koans came to be a way of communicating understandings about the nature of reality and of having experiences of awakening.

As a teenager I’d write down poems or the words of a song and keep them with me where I could look at them. When I’d repeat the words to myself, I’d see something I hadn’t seen before, understand how to get through this dark patch or how to grow up. I still find those bits of paper in boxes and old wallets. I also discovered meditation around that time and it helped too. I could sit still and let the world have its way with me, put my doomed thoughts on hold and allow what was mysterious to reveal itself to me in the light through the window.

It was 20 years later when I first heard about koans. Initially I imagined them as an obscure spiritual puzzle for argumentative monks, which wasn’t very appealing. But then I met an actual koan. I had no expectations at first, but it was good company. I liked it. I wondered about it and turned it over and over in my meditation. I let myself be inside the world of the koan. Slowly, unexpectedly, it started to soften me up and I become fond of my actual life, even the difficult bits, the grumpy children, the impossible problems. The French poet Paul Eluard explained it: “Il y a un autre monde, mais il est dans celui-ci” (there is another world but it’s inside this one). Later on, my intense curiosity about the koans gave my practice a new kind of energy. And as I went along, I found there was something in me that understood what they were talking about. Ever since I’ve always had a koan with me, meditating, walking around, in my sleep.

A koan: Step by step in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

A koan is made of evocative words and images. It’s not generalized spiritual advice, or even a good idea, it’s a response to a specific moment, and that moment is happening now. Each koan is different and takes me on its own journey. In the case of the koan above, you can enter through the stone, the dark, the water. And when you do this it’s possible to see how this moment is like so many others. “I’m in the dark again, looking for a stone. I’m walking through it, taking one step after another.” and I could also see that difficult situations are part of the condition of being a person. We find ourselves in the dark because it’s in our nature to be this way. And it’s also in our nature to find our way. It’s clear that the eternal and the ephemeral are connected, your individual life is part of something vast and shared.

Koans will show you something, and it will never be about how you or the world is wrong. Your criticisms and judgments, your ideas about how deeply flawed you or the rest of humanity are, your plans for escape or revenge or redemption, none of that matters at all to the koan. It will show you the vast web of everything, the net of jewels that you are a part of. Koans will teach you how to practice and they will be a gate into the never-boring world of everything you don’t already know.

Here’s how to do it: Step by step, in the dark, if my foot is not wet, I’ve found the stone.

1. Take a step:

Find a koan for yourself. You can use this one, about stepping in the dark, or if it holds no appeal, find another. I’ve included a short list below. Or perhaps you’ve already found a koan, or one is eyeing you from across the room. You can meditate with the koan, or take it for a walk. You can repeat the words to yourself, or not. Even one word is enough. What you remember consciously may not be up to you. Trusting the way you naturally work with the koan is the beginning of making a relationship with it.

2. Be in the dark:

We like to know things. It makes us feel safer, not vulnerable to criticism from ourselves or others. Koans don’t work like that. They reward the vulnerability of not knowing. The effort of working with the koan is in letting go of the ways you usually use your mind, the plans, the judgments, the image management. If you like, you can even let go of the koan. Once you’ve heard it you can’t lose it, it will stay with you, anchored below your attention. You don’t need to explain it to yourself or figure it out. What is required is to allow yourself to go to the edge of what you know and look beyond. This curiously delicious darkness stretches out in all directions. Transformation comes from this place.

3. Get wet:

Take the koan into your life. This means take it to the store, take it on a long commute, to work, take it to the woods, the circus, and holidays with your parents or your children. Repeat it. Allow it into your heart when you’re late for an appointment or in the midst of a hard conversation, when you’re sad or bored or disappointed in fame or fortune. Just recall the koan to mind and notice what happens. Really look. What you saw before won’t be what you see now. You may see the light in people’s faces that you had missed before. Something annoying may turn out to be funny instead.

4. Find a stone:

This koan, “Step by step in the dark…” points to the way that you have the capacity to find a moment of ease, a dry place to put your foot. Notice when that ease comes, maybe that’s the stone. The koan also provides you with places to step in the form of potent words and images. Let yourself rest in these. Use the word or image as a focus, lean into it. Explore what it’s like. Feel it in your body. Actually walk in the dark and notice how it is for you. Find out what kind of stone is your stone, and how it is for you to step there. Notice when you’re at peace.

5. Start again:

When you lose your practice, when suffering appears again, impenetrable and literal, you can always start again. Find your koan. Shake it a bit and ask, what now? This is a practice that will be there when you need it.

You can do this anytime, in any condition. You can do this in meditation, sitting quietly, in a pool of sunlight. And better still, take it where you don’t think it can go. It’s there whenever you need insight or a new way of seeing your situation or a hand to hold in the dark. There won’t be an answer, not directly, but you will start to see something new, or more clearly. The world (the argument, the traffic) will be visible in a different way, perhaps brighter, or perhaps it will bring tears to your eyes, or make you laugh out loud.

Postscript:

There is a Zen practice of working on koans individually with a teacher as a curriculum, which is based on a traditional Japanese method. The technique I give here is also useful in that context. There are many ways to practice with koans, and you will discover your own. Fortunately koans are robust, durable, and impossible to break.

A very small selection of koans to choose from:
1. There is a true person of no rank, always coming and going through the portals of your face.

2. There is nothing I dislike.

3. The heart-mind turns in accord with the ten thousand things. The pivot on which it turns is very deep.

4. Put out the fire across the river.

5. What is your original face before your parents were born?

6. Heart clouded, heart unclouded, standing or falling, it’s still the same body.

7. Who am I?

8. Question: Why did the first ancestor come from the west? Answer: The oak tree in the garden.

9. There is a solitary brightness without fixed shape or form. It knows how to listen, to understand, and to teach the dharma. This solitary brightness is you.

–Rachel Boughton

Source: Lion’s Roar Magazine

Written by MattAndJojang

October 29, 2019 at 9:13 am

In Midst of Winter, An Invincible Summer: Finding the Light in the Darkest of Times

leave a comment »

flower

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger, something better, pushing right back.

– Albert Camus

My daughter Alex once put her bike out on our Brooklyn street for any stranger to take. She made a sign saying “Free bike! Please enjoy!” in purple crayon, adding a bold smiley face. I helped her carry the bike down the steep steps of our brownstone and place it under the streetlight, the sign taped to the seat.

Lying in bed that night, her face shone with happy anticipation. Things appeared and disappeared on the street all the time, but it was different being part of it. In a way, this was what I wanted her to understand: meaning is an action; we make meaning through our actions. You exist in a web of life: this was the message. You are part of nature and part of the human community. And when you give, you receive something.

A good friend of mine once told me that her father took her and the other kids in the family to Coney Island to look at the rides through a fence. To an adult, observing other people riding the Cyclone or the Wonder Wheel may have seemed a clever money-saving move, almost as good as the real thing, even preferable: people don’t die watching roller coasters. To the children, of course, it wasn’t even close.

Some truths must be lived. I knew this, even though I spent a lot of time reading and thinking about life. The aspiration, beyond recycling a little purple bike with training wheels that was outgrown, was to kindle something in Alex: an interest in the great exchange that is always happening in life, a sense of being part of it. I could barely find words for it, and I was far from being a role model of engagement. I was an over-thinker, an observer. The hope was that if all the elements came together, the action in the street, the larger idea, there might be fire.

The next morning Alex clambered down the steps from her loft bed and flung open the drapes of the big windows in the living room. She whirled around, her face as radiant as if it was Christmas morning. The bike was gone! We marveled together, although we were marveling at different things. I was marveling at having given birth to a child who seemed to take joy in giving without knowing who might benefit, who seemed to delight in being part of the dance of life. Incredibly, in spite of own doubts and major flaws, I seemed to have pulled off something amazing.

“Now, when do I get something back?” she asked, her big eyes without guile. I had no answer. It was as if a curtain was drawn back, revealing a blank wall. Alex was asking profound questions, and I shared them: is the universe benevolent? How can we begin to understand our relationship to this life?

“Be patient with all that is unsolved in your heart,” writes Rilke. “And try to love the questions themselves. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions.”

The thinking mind hates this kind of suggestion. It wants to know. It wants to lift itself up above our flowing, changing, moment-by-moment experience, the world of the body and its perceptions and feelings. It wants us to be someone, and it wants life to be predictable and within our control. But our Brooklyn neighborhood gentrified, and our brownstone sold to a Wall Street investor and his young wife, who brought an architect into our apartment to discuss massive renovations as I sat at my desk, trying to work.

***

We moved to northern Westchester. Alexandra grieved for the life and diversity of Brooklyn, withdrawing into the world of Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings, spending hours online with friends who shared her interests. I made a stab at gardening, hoping to soothe and ground us in our new life, to bring a happy little kid back to me by bringing her in touch with the earth.

Stab is the correct word for the effort I made, brief and blunt. Only if a person were blind and drunk and working without tools could they get muddier than I even when I was just transplanting a few flowers. Reluctantly, Alex joined me a few times, wandering outside wearing rubber boots and pajama bottoms, trailing a trowel as if she were joining a chain gang.

Alex complained that everything about the digging and the planting went slowly. I told her that the work and the pace were the same for our earliest ancestors, but I knew this couldn’t be true. They would have starved if they had farmed this way. Alex said she didn’t like pretending we were “back in ancestral times.” I didn’t blame her. We were not our ancestors and we couldn’t know what they knew. There are truths that cannot be known by outside observation, by superficial efforts, by quick stabs. What drove me to keep trying to teach what I didn’t understand? I wanted Alex to feel welcome on the earth. I wanted to teach her to be strong and have hope, but it seemed we were all being swept along passively by time and circumstance.

“Hope is not a form of guarantee,” writes the critic John Berger. “It’s a form of energy, and very frequently that energy is strongest in circumstances that are very dark.”

Within the year, a super storm flooded the downstairs and washed the garden beds away. I ran around the house in the middle of the night, on my way to the basement to save boxes of pictures and diplomas and other items. The seemingly solid ground turned to liquid mud. Some truths can only be experienced: the ground giving way beneath our feet is one.

***

Life is always in movement and always uncertain. Yet deeper truths are revealed when we need them; doors open from the inside. I learned this one December, in the international arrival terminal of JFK airport in New York. It had been a long and difficult trip, and I pictured snuggling safely into the car and soon my own warm bed, a returning warrior, battered but enriched by my experiences. I reached my hand into the bag and that bubble burst. Somewhere between the baggage claim and the car, my wallet had disappeared.

I took everything out of my bag and examined the interior, and then I did it again, unwilling to accept the gaping absence of something that felt so essential to my sense of security. I cycled through the expected reactions: panic and disbelief, the desperate hope that some honest citizen had turned the wallet in, then rage and self-blame about little things, that psychic cutting technique we use to ward off the greater pain of feeling vulnerable. I picked on little details. Why did I stand in such a crowded place to retrieve my suitcase? Why didn’t I wait?

Home from the airport, after a flurry of phone calls, I lay in bed in the dark, wrestling with the dark angel of the deeper why. Why was I so careless? A chorus of witch-like voices chimed in: you’ve always been this way. I felt like a blind and wounded giant lurching around breaking things inside. Why hadn’t I gone ahead and bought that ridiculously expensive sweater or that expensive scotch or that age-reversing face cream I saw in the duty-free shop? It would have been better than just losing all that money to dark unseen forces, wouldn’t it? I was in no state to remember the night I had urged Alex to give her little purple bike to the universe, but the contrast was crazy. How could I trust in the goodness of life?

In spite of all of our care and precaution, life is unpredictable and subject to change. Our sense of security and control is mostly an illusion. No matter how hard we try to be safe and achieve and become someone in this world, life is uncertainty, and we are wavering creatures. There will be unexpected changes at the last moment. There will be loss.

“Security is mostly a superstition,” writes Helen Keller. “It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

I lost the wallet during the darkest time of year in the Northern Hemisphere, days before the Winter Solstice, the day when the North Pole is tilted farthest from the sun. Our ancient ancestors noted that darkest day, watching the stars and noticing the shortening days, patiently abiding until one day, they noticed a shift: the darkest day was followed by a little more light.

In Newgrange, in the east of Ireland, there is a mysterious Neolithic monument, a huge circular mound with a passageway and interior chambers. Tests reveal that it was built in 3200 B.C.E., which makes it older than the pyramids in Giza and older than Stonehenge. No one can say exactly what it is for, a tomb, a place of rituals. But here is where it gets extraordinary: it was built so that the light of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice, on December 21, floods the chamber. Just as the sun rises, sunlight pours through an opening above the main entrance, shining along the passage and illuminating a carving of a triple spiral on the front wall.

I have often imagined how it must have been to gather in that chamber five thousand years ago, how dark it must have been before dawn in a world lit only by fire. Why did these ancient ancestors undertake such a vast and exacting project? Some researchers speculate that they were ritually capturing the sun on the shortest day, as if they were children capable of little more than magical thinking. But the engineering and astronomy required to build Newgrange refutes this. It is a monument to attention and faith.

Lying in bed the night of the wallet, finally exhausted from all my thinking, I thought about this extraordinary feat. It seemed amazing to me that these ancient people could stay open and observing that way in all weather, going on being with life without rushing to conclusion. Left to its own devices, the ordinary thinking mind tends towards pessimism. The light will never return, it tells us; it is always darkest before it is pitch black: that kind of grim prediction.

A shift occurs when the thinking mind emerges from its self-enclosed isolation and re-enters the world through the perceptions and feelings of the body. Most of the time we modern people treat the body as if it is little more than a mute animal that carries us around. We dress it and feed it and sometimes buy expensive moisturizer for the poor thing but mostly it disappoints us, even as it tries to serve us as loyally as a good dog.

The trip that landed me in JFK had been a visit to my now grown daughter Alex, educated, married, and living in England. How do these changes happen? Often during the trip, I looked at my jet-lagged face in the mirror, bewildered by what I saw: who was this older-looking woman with the vaguely worried look in her eyes? Most of us feel we are not enough somehow, not quick enough or somehow substantial enough. Life sweeps us along, and it often seems there is no solid ground.

***

In Buddhism, a definition of faith is the ability to keep our hearts open in the darkness of the unknown. The root of the word patience is a Latin verb for “suffer,” which in the ancient sense meant to hold, not to grasp but to bear, to tolerate without pushing away. Being patient doesn’t mean being passive. It means being attentive, willing to be available to what is happening, going on seeing, noticing how things change. When we aren’t wishing for something to be over, or when we aren’t freezing around an idea about what it is we are seeing, we see and hear more. We notice that nature has cycles, that each day is not the same length and quality, and that darkness passes.

We don’t have the same close connection to nature that our ancient ancestors had but we have the same bodies and hearts and minds, the same capacity for attention with faith. The Buddha described the experience of enlightenment in many different ways, including being forgiven our debts and experiencing the breaking of a fever. A Zen master once explained that enlightenment happens in small moments, many times. These moments tend to come when we stop fighting reality, when we relax and open. This state of opening is also called liberation, and it often comes in the midst of what we think of as failure and crushing disappointment.

We each find the deeper truths in our time and own way. We find them as we learn to observe from the inside. In England, my daughter and her husband drove me to visit the sets of the Harry Potter films. It was a pilgrimage to a modern Newgrange, a monument to the work that showed young Alex the magical potential of life, the way the light gets in no matter how dark. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, once told a graduating class of Harvard that failure was the bedrock upon which she built her real life. Failing utterly by worldly standards granted her the freedom to strip her life down to the essentials, to tell the story of a lonely boy who, unknown to himself, was really a wizard.

Lying in bed that night, I remembered that the Buddha also believed he was a failure. Alone on a riverbank, split off from his yogi brothers, he broke his vows and took food offered by a young woman. Nourished by this simple act of kindness, he remembered a simple time from childhood. He had sat alone under a rose apple tree, watching his father and other men from his village plow the fields for spring planting. Peaceful and happy, with no adults bothering him, he could be open and attentive to life as it flowed around him.

“Heaven and Earth give themselves,” teaches the twentieth-century Japanese Zen master Kodo Sawaki. “Air, water, plants, animals, and humans give themselves to each other. It is in this giving-themselves-to each-other that we actually live.”

The boy Buddha also saw insect families tossed about by the plowing and felt a pang of compassion. He took this impression of equanimity, of being open to the flow of life, to joy and sorrow and all that arises, under the Bodhi tree. This memory of being kind and humble and selfless, just a little kid sitting under a tree, became the bedrock of his enlightenment.

At about 1 a.m. on the night I lost my wallet, the iPhone on the bedside table lit up. A band of light flashed across the screen in the dark, a message from my daughter in England. Mom, I’m so sorry this happened to you. In the light of day and in smooth times, such a message would be no big deal, nice words. But that night it was a candle in the darkness. The eye barely registers the light of a candle in broad daylight but on a dark night it can be seen a long way, shining out as a reminder that there was still warmth and benevolence in the world, the possibility of companionship and kindness here in the midst of it all.

I felt a little blip of love and gratitude. I thanked her and another little message flashed back. It was a trifling exchange, complete with emoticons, yet it felt wiser and more alive than the dire and dramatic racket in my head. Once when she was younger, I told my daughter that it was more important to be kind than to be right. Now I realized that kindness is also wise.

Lying in bed in the dark, watching my iPhone light up, it dawned on me that the meaning of life, the real purpose of our presence here, is being attentive, being willing to go on seeing and keeping our hearts open—not just for our sake but for the sake of others. We make ourselves available to life, opening our hearts to the passing flow of it, knowing we will blunder and get it wrong but sometimes right. We do this even knowing that those hearts will inevitably break because life is uncertainty and change and loss. But sometimes when we are open, light floods the darkest chamber.

–Tracy Cochran

Written by MattAndJojang

March 10, 2017 at 6:29 pm

Shadow

leave a comment »

Shadow does not exist by itself, it is cast, by a real physical body. We may say a person is overwhelmed by their shadow: a Tiger Woods by their sexuality, a Richard Nixon by their overweening sense of power, a nation by its hubris, but their shadow is passive, an absence of light, a shape lent by their own outline. Shadow is shaped by presence; presence comes a priori to our flaws and absences. To change the shape of ourselves is to change the shape of the shadow we cast. To become transparent is to lose one’s shadow altogether, something we often desire in the spiritual abstract, but actually something that is not attainable by human beings – to change the shape of the identity that casts a shadow is more possible. Shadow is a necessary consequence of being in a sunlit visible world, but it is not a central identity, or a power waiting to overwhelm us.

Even the most beneficial presence casts a shadow. Mythologically, having no shadow means being of another world, not being fully human, not being in or of this world. Shadow is something that must be lived with, literally, as it follows us around, obscuring the sun or the view for others, yet we cannot use it as an excuse not to be present, nor to act, nor to effect others by our presence, no matter if the effect is sometimes indeed, overshadowing and difficult. Nor can we use it as an excuse to run uncaring over other’s concerns.

To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark; and to approach the central difficulty, that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable, to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt. To cast no shadow on others is to vacate the physical consequences of our appearance in the world.

Shadow is a beautiful, inverse, confirmation of our incarnation. Shadow is intimated absence; almost a template of presence. It is a clue to the character of our appearance in the world. It is an intimation of the ultimate vulnerability, the dynamic of being found by others, not only through the physical body but by its passing acts; even its darkening effect on others; shadow makes a presence of absence, it is a clue to ourselves and to those we are with, even to the parts of ourselves not yet experienced, yet already perceived by others. Shadow is not good or bad, only inescapable.

–David Whyte

 

Written by MattAndJojang

April 12, 2016 at 11:52 am

Easter Blessing

with 2 comments

Photo: David Whyte

Photo: David Whyte

The blessing of the morning light to you,
may it find you even in your invisible appearances,
may you be seen to have risen
from some other place we intuit and know
in the darkness and that carries all we need.
May you see what is hidden in you
as a place of hospitality and shadowed shelter,
may that hidden darkness be your gift to give,
may you hold the shadow to the light
and the silence of that place to the word of the light,
may you join all of your previous disappearances
with this new appearance, this new morning,
this being seen again, new and newly alive.

— David Whyte

Written by MattAndJojang

April 6, 2015 at 9:47 am

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , , , , ,