The Familiar and the Intimate (A Reflection on Belief)


Audio of a talk I recorded, based on this essay.


Black is the color of my roof, where I now do my daily meditation. It is said to be the absence of color; the state of vision where no light reaches the eye. Well, apart from the absurdity of speaking about vision without light, we all know better from experience.

The dark-adapted eye can see a single photon; and in our ordinary experience, you’ve always got a few photons around, no matter how dark our surroundings. A practice I have often recommended is to turn off every light in the house and sit at night in a closet with a tight-fitting door. Just sit there awhile with your eyes open and see what happens. Then, leave the closet, go to a mirror, and look at the pupils of your eyes. Note their size and color.

Until a few months ago, black was the color of life and love to me: the fur of my old friend Night the cat. It glistened; it received and returned light without effort or display. Black, for me, was not just beautiful (as the old 60′s expression goes); it was beauty. It was one of the small, scarcely noticeable lessons Night taught me; perhaps it is no random coincidence that I seek her out again on the black tarpaper of the roof.

nightstareFor 13 years, she taught me, when she was a cat. And now — when her cat-body sits as a pile of ash inside a black plastic container on my bookshelf — now she teaches me still. Her vision is now broader; her language more diverse. She can speak to me in the language I know and recognize; or she can touch me with a wordless light whose intimacy and immediacy are of a realm that knows neither time nor thought. She’s become a more effective teacher; so I must become a more attentive student.

I am well aware of the seeming nonsense, even the idiocy, of talking and writing about such an experience: learning lessons from a dead cat and pretending to record them here (thus the new name of this site). It is a goofy hallucination that doesn’t make sense at any level of logic and intellect. And this is precisely why it makes so much sense to me. As I will  explain below, it doesn’t even have to make sense; perhaps it is better off as lunacy. For the moon (“luna-”) dwells in the blackness of space (as do we and our planet). Watts used to love telling the story of the astronaut who returned from space and was asked if he had seen God. “Yes,” he answered, “and she is black.” Just like my old friend and new leader, Night.


The notion of animal guides or “familiars,” as they are sometimes called, is by no means new or unique. I have been gifted with this specific guide (Night), where others tend to find the generic (wolf, bear, tiger, dolphin, etc.). This is fine for me, since I would not consider myself a shaman any more than I’d claim to be a cat. Nevertheless…

IFI had an interesting meditation experience out on the roof one day. I felt myself growing black, pointed ears; and some presence entered me — calm, unpretentious, centered, loving. Cats have long been models, exemplars for me in the practice of meditation: the way they sit; how they can fill a space with Presence; their utter absence of ambition; their often sublime sense of humor. These are hallmarks of a successful practice.
Alan Watts was once criticized by some orthodox-style Zen practitioners for not sitting long enough or intensely enough or painfully enough. He responded: “I sit like a cat, for as long as is right. Then I get up and stretch.” Now that’s trusting your animal guide.

Meditation is purposeless action that always serves a purpose; we just never quite know which one. Therefore,  it makes sense to let go of expectation and ambition in our practice. The animals already do this without having to even be conscious of doing it. If you can receive no other teaching from an animal guide than this, you will have done remarkably well.

IFI listen to Night for her ability to remind me where my center lies. In her life here with me, she knew me better than any living creature did. She read my emotions before even I was aware of them; this is a distinctly animal sense which, if we would only stop repressing it, we would enjoy in the same abundance. So now she can hold me back or push me forward; restrain me or release me depending on my presence in that moment. There have been several times these past 3 months when I needed to call on her, usually to overcome fear. Last month, as I was being prepped for surgery, I asked for her help, and it was there. Fear, she has taught me, is absolutely helpless against love; it’s a worse mismatch than last year’s Super Bowl. When love is present, fear gets trounced. And that cat, in her life here and in her life beyond, has always had a capacity for love that is humbling to contemplate.

IFWe humans have an ambivalent relationship with animals, probably because we have a similarly conflicted relationship with ourselves as animals.  The arrogance of our spiritual traditions is the root of this weed — see, for instance, Genesis 1:26-28,  in which we are not merely encouraged but commanded to “have dominion” over all those creepy, crawly, furry things of Nature that are so far below us in the eye of God.

Nevertheless, in the same Bible as that containing the most violent arrogance ever imputed to a God and his human creation, we find this (from the Preacher of Ecclesiastes):

As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?

IFThe Eastern and so-called Pagan traditions have shown a sense of humility similar to that of the Preacher. Lao Tzu mentions that the Tao loves and nurtures all creatures equally, but never plays the boss to them. Still, and to this day, the violence against animals persists in every culture. The Japanese kill the whales and the dolphins; the Chinese (who have no animal cruelty laws of any kind) are infamous for their fur farms and routine executions of dogs; poachers from many nations are slaughtering African elephants; and America leads the world in the depredations of the factory farm, which, incidentally, is a prominent cause of climate change.

In short, and no matter what our tribal spiritual or moral teachings may tell us, we commonly treat the creatures of Nature (including those of our own species, of course) with a brazen cruelty that is borne of pure ignorance. I draw a straight line from this behavior and this ignorance to the repression or denial of our own animal nature. That is to say, rather than receive and reflect our own light, we enshroud it in a forced and artificial darkness.

IFThe good news (the meaning of the word “gospel”) is that each of us — whether we be carnivore or vegan; Christian or Buddhist; atheist or pagan — can choose a different way than the one of darkness. Discovering an animal guide may be part of that choice, and it doesn’t much matter how you go about it. Meditate; draw some pictures; look through some books or draw upon some memories; write or read animal stories; or just look around your own world and let your familiar approach your life.

I’ve been lucky, even amid my mourning (which, after three months, continues). Night was, even in this life here, a being of such pure and complete psycho-spiritual maturity that she transited directly into the cosmic consciousness, virtually from the moment she rested her head against my arm and let go. In that very moment she gave me her first lesson from that other side: that death and regeneration represent a process that happens not at some randomly-determined second at the end of a course of physical existence. It happens in every moment; it is happening now. The more we open ourselves to now, to exactly where, when, and who we are — the more the heavens open; the Mysteries all dissolve before us; and the joy-drunk wonder of being absorbs and completes us.

IFNow this does not mean that we walk around like kumbaya-singing zombies; that is a caricature of the New Age, which frankly is frequently deserved. It only means that we not take our lives (or our deaths) quite so seriously; that we play the game of struggle, suffering, loss, pain, and grief with some consciousness, however subliminal, of its essence as illusion, play. When we live according to the truth of direct experience, we can play with our conceptions of that experience.

And so I pretend to teach this nonsense about animal familiars and my own ongoing experience with one. Many people having such an experience would want you to believe in it; to receive the conceptualization and verbalization of it as truth. But I know that anything I can tell you about my experience with and of Night is nonsense. It has to be; again, Lao Tzu: “how could the Tao be Tao if it didn’t make people laugh?” Our very efforts to express the deepest truths, the most intimate feelings within us, mock their very purpose. This is when we learn to retreat into silence or burst into hysterics: either response is appropriate.

If I were to try to believe, then I would be compelled to make you believe; this is the first seed of conflict. Night doesn’t ask me to believe; only to be present, to be ready and open for the next experience, our next encounter. She gave me so much, so freely and continually, during her life with me here — it would be both foolish and ungrateful of me to ignore her. Thus, I keep feeling for her presence, and I keep listening. And, like that single photon in the darkness, she finds her way through — helping, leading, guiding. I am a very fortunate old man.

Teachings of Night: Being (Not Biting) The Iron Bull

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMany of us spend a significant part of our lives in a posture of defense. Is life that dangerous, really? Or have we tended to overlook or even deny something even more elemental than life itself? What if we spent just half as much time and energy on the contemplation of death as we commonly do on psychological defense?

Whenever Alan Watts talked of death (see above), he was doing the same thing as any good teacher does with this subject — he spoke of and for life. He knew that the honest, fearless, and self-searching examination of death was the greatest tonic to life. It has the effect of breaking down the walls, habits, and fears of defense. Fewer walls, greater freedom; and far less dissipated and misdirected energy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe Americans love to save: we like saving money, saving time, and we give abundant lip service, at least, to saving trouble. The man-god of our culture’s dominant religion is a symbol of salvation, of saving and being saved. I personally think that Jesus the man wasn’t the least bit interested in saving anyone, but rather in exposing ego and revealing the truth within us. The salvation myth is a crust that was spread by others over this original meat of self-discovery; that crust was then sold as the substance, the whole meaning of Christ’s story and teaching. So it is perhaps no random coincidence but a kind of grim irony that we eat slivers of grain (communion wafers) as our ritualistic consumption of the body of God. That thin, superficial crust has become the consummation of Christian reality, and the seed of Western law and corporate culture.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThus, even for those of us who have consciously rejected the Christian myth and its torpid, obsolete morality, the salvation superstition remains, and must be both examined and discarded. So let’s trample salvation under the wheel of presence and attend to our selves rather than our gods. Paradoxically, it might “save us” from a lot of self-destructive energy.

I’ve already touched on the method to this madness in my various discussions of “psychological nudity” — the stripping away of belief, fear, guilt, hatred, and delusion from the living body of the true self. When your energy-body is clear, then guess what, you start to love the form you see in the mirror, no matter its superficial appearance or how others might perceive it.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhat I’m adding to this now is that you can have the same or similar experience when it comes to the defensive attitude towards life. For when we sincerely embrace the work of psychological nudity, we find that we are also weakening the foundations of those walls that comprise and indeed define the defensive life.

This is what Watts is talking about with regard to death: the quest for external salvation is part of the delusion. We can give ourselves all the salvation we might ever wish for, simply by refusing to waste ourselves. Thus, it makes sense to play with these puzzles that Watts recommends:

  • What is the nature of Nothing? How can anything, let alone the universe or ourselves, come from Nothing?
  • Imagine what it is like to go to sleep and never wake up.
  • Envision an experience of the Eternal Null: absolute emptiness.
  • Look around you, right now, and wonder at how soon you and all those people you see there will be dead.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASuch questions are, once you get to know them, incredibly refreshing, restorative, life-giving. Why? Because they have no correct answers. It’s like finding a lover who makes no demands of you; or going into a house or a room without walls — a space that is completely your own, personal and private; yet without barriers of division and separation.

The Mosquito and the Bull

That brings us back to where we began: finding or revealing an inner world where defense is no longer a reflex arc and the vicious circle of aggression and defense is finally and enduringly broken. What, after all, is there to defend? Find out: ask without giving up on the question. Be an utter pest to yourself, your true self. No one will be harmed, for when you work deeply with such questions you are what in Zen is called the “mosquito biting the iron bull.” The mosquito lives by its bite; it has no other means of sustenance. Iron’s subatomic structure is a slowly vibrating stillness of a density that resists the penetration of the mosquito’s bite. The mosquito cannot disturb the iron bull; and the bull cannot harm the mosquito.

IFSo, taken as metaphor, how is this developmental? Well, the mosquito’s bite is made to penetrate flesh, not iron; the bull’s body is forever imperturbable but non-responsive. The bull makes no defense and responds with no attack; its body allows the presence of the mosquito’s but is impervious to its bite. The Question invites us on but not in.

Eventually, our mosquito-being decides to stop biting. Instead, we begin the work of walking around the body of the iron bull. The assault becomes an exploration in which we discover that we and the bull are not two, not separate. When that happens a few times (for realization never persists for long), the space that connects and embraces the bull’s iron and the mosquito’s maw fills us up and holds us in. The Mystery, once so opaque and darkly rigid, dissolves and disperses, as soon as we just let go of our demand for The Answer.

Therefore, our object in exploring these questions about death and nothingness is not to penetrate them but to live with them. We dance over the iron bull’s body and thereby join with it, become it, and discover that we are the very body of that Mystery whose blood we once sought to extract by force.

Grace and the Science of Living

IFBeauty comes from within. It is not attached or attained, and it has no need of display. Indeed, the only ugliness I tend to see in the world is characterized either by display or despair. But perhaps if it weren’t for that we wouldn’t be able to recognize beauty.

Those who are clear enough within themselves to be drawn by that beauty of the natural harmony will inevitably see and appreciate yours. There is no need for cosmetics or any other tricks of artifice.

The 22nd hexagram of the I Ching explores this theme of beauty in a set of poems going under a title that is usually translated as “Grace.”

Now this is a word with diverse associations in the West, so we had better start by explaining what the I Ching does not mean by grace. It is certainly not some divine intervention or endorsement (“amazing” or otherwise) from an external boss-god. Instead, the Chinese thought of grace as a principle of Nature. Thus, grace underlies many of the ideas and practices of the well-known (and frequently distorted) Chinese environmental art of Feng Shui.

In Feng Shui, grace is balance, stability, natural order, and perhaps above all else, freedom from excess, from clutter. You see these principles in living environments to this day throughout the East. Japan “imported” Feng Shui from China as much or more than it did Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism.

IFThe I Ching and Feng Shui were simultaneously inspired by and associated with Taoism (which left its own philosophical imprint on what was to become Zen). Hexagram 22 teaches that the way to grace is defined by illumination (the symbol of Li, the lower three-line figure or trigram), and stillness (the symbol of Ken, the upper trigram). As the lower trigram is the “inner” trigram of personal truth, while the upper is the “outer” trigram of interaction with the world, it is easy to see and feel the message contained in this single image. Grace is illumination from within, amid stillness and serenity without. True beauty has no other way of being. This, incidentally, is what another poet, Keats meant by his famous equation: “beauty is truth, truth beauty…”


IFNow the point where most Westerners stop the music with Feng Shui is, paradoxically, at its very essence, which is also the essence of the I Ching and of Taoism (and in fact of most Buddhism). Consciousness: the ubiquity and universality of consciousness. The Western mind can’t go there: we believe that there are living things and dead or inert things; and those “dead things” simply lack consciousness.

But think again: haven’t you developed a living relationship with a car, a favorite dress, a house? That’s Feng Shui. I have heard interviews with people who have lost their homes to a disaster — earthquake, flood, tornado, hurricane, fire, etc. — and I have noted how often they look into the rubble and say something like, “it’s like losing a family member…”

Yes, it is, fairly exactly in fact. Environment is consciousness. Not “environment has consciousness”, in the sense of connections and projections of the humans living in that environment — that is of course part of it, but not the origin, not the essence. If you are going to understand Feng Shui and its philosophical companions of natural insight — the I Ching, Lao Tzu’s and Chuang Tzu’s Tao, the scientific and medical texts that gave us acupuncture — you need to suspend disbelief in a single idea, that all is consciousness.

IFI’ve mentioned this before: there is no need to believe in the principle that all things are consciousness. Just hang your disbelief out to dry — you can always pick it up later, nice and fresh. Experience, to the extent that you open yourself to it, will become your friend. It happens for me all the time now. The other day I went to see a new doctor who was both East and West in his practice: a D.O. who is also an acupuncturist. He performed the most detailed, thorough, and expert physical exam I’ve had in at least 20 years; ran an EKG which he read with precision; and otherwise showed every sign of being completely adept at the diagnostic practice of Western medicine.

Then he caught me by surprise. I had forgotten the other half of his work, as methodical and technical as his initial workup was. As I lay back after the EKG, I felt a firm, focused energy flowing into my upper abdomen. As I lifted my head to see what was going on there, I saw his hands, about two or three inches above my solar plexus; and then he spoke: “you have a blockage of chi here…” Then he moved his hands further down, above my belly button, and I felt another sensation of being penetrated by a warm, pointed energy wave: “…and here, too.”

The existence of chi is generally viewed with something ranging from ridicule to contempt by Western medical science. This is only regrettable insofar as it makes professionals like my doctor much rarer than they ought to be (and acupuncture much more expensive than it ought to be, since most insurance companies won’t cover it). Western medicine is, like Western building and architectural science, playing its own game; and in many respects it’s a good, fruitful game for the societies it serves. Nevertheless, it is painfully self-limiting and myopic in its vision of Nature in general and the human organism in particular.

IFWe do not live in an exclusively Newtonian universe: the Chinese recognized this reality three millennia (or more) ago. Disciplines such as physics, chemistry, mathematics, and technology have, much more recently, begun to recognize it. Quantum mechanics, nonlinear dynamics, quantum computing, and similar revolutions of science are leading us, calling us toward a fresh understanding and a new experience of our world and of ourselves — one which must be characterized by insight as much as intellect; by feeling as much as thought.

Years ago, it was in fact common to hear talk of the “art of medicine” in respected Western professional circles. Great architects like Frank Lloyd Wright were spoken of as artists. Scientists like Maxwell, Bohr, Einstein (and, I would argue, even Newton himself) clearly were gifted with something greater than mere intellect alone. There was art in them, an energy of insight that embraced and then surpassed thought and calculation. To this day, great science is said to possess a quality known as “elegance.” In the 20th century, Dirac’s equations were seen as the epitome of mathematical elegance. Truth is beauty.

Thus we return to chi — the life-energy of consciousness that will be found to exist in every formed thing and in all the space it inhabits. Elegance is not the knocking of cosmic billiard balls pushed by the broken hand of randomness or the benign despotism of intellect. Elegance asks us to wake up from the Newtonian nightmare and join the quantum dance of life. To do so, we have to turn within and shatter the table upon which those billiard balls sit. I recently received a lesson in this myself, involving (wouldn’t you know) Hexagram 22 of the I Ching: Grace, with the first and fourth lines changing.

Grace shows success. It is not favorable to create form for its own sake.

(line 1) He leaves the carriage, lends grace to his toes, and walks.

(line 4) Grace in hills and gardens. The roll of silk is not ‘meager and small.’ When humiliation is ended, good fortune.

Appeal is superficial; only beauty is of the depths. “Form for its own sake” works the surface, not the substance from which grace arises. So in order to join with the living earth that shares my being, I need to get out of the hard, high, harshly-lit walled container of the “carriage” — the monarchical solipsism of thought and the lofty tower of empiricism, whose very foundation is the despair of alienation, of estrangement from the world, the universe, the living self. Upon asking for guidance from the quantum reality, as I always do, I found the following delusion within me, which was a poison arrow (a Feng Shui term) of the collective ego: “What you can’t see or measure has to scare you.” In the same meditation, a harrowing, stark image also came to mind: Nature as a deformed imp whose face and body were twisted with the ugliness of fear and competition.

The fear is of some great unknown — in fact, of any unknown — as if knowing alone is the sole condition of safety and success (an error that I call “the Rumsfeld delusion”). My teachers in the I Ching expressed it this way in their version of the oracle:

[The unknown] has been invented by the collective ego to impute that the invisible Cosmic Consciousness is hostile, frightening, or inaccessible. The idea is reinforced by giving credibility only to what can be seen by the outer eyes. When we are open to the Cosmic Consciousness, we experience it as a friendly and loving feeling consciousness. It is unknown only when our intellect has been separated from our feeling consciousness, and starts imagining what it is like.

The irony here is that by allowing fear and the cult of competition against Nature to warp our experience, we actually blind our intellectual capacities by forcing them naked and alone onto the stage of life and mind. Thought is by nature a team player: it likes the company of all the other forces and senses within the living personality. When that teamwork is present, thought reveals the full range of its reach, strength, and courage.


Krishnamurti and the Call to Metarevolution

IFI used to be in favor of revolution; the idea in general made sense. Now, if pressed, I might call myself a metarevolutionary. To understand what such a term might mean, you may listen to the 8 minutes of Krishnamurti above. But if I leave it there, I may as well not be writing. So I’ll walk the edge of hubris and offer a little commentary on JK’s remarks.

  • Krishanmurti addresses and respects his audience’s sense of suffering. This, in fact, is why he encourages people to accept the responsibility that arises from his teaching: he knows their suffering and senses their courage. That very sense of our shared suffering is simultaneously our protection and our potential. To deny or repress that sense is to reject our humanity.
  • Therefore, he proclaims: become not mere managers of your lives; become the artists of your lives. The artist knows the truth that is opened to anyone who can embrace and surpass contradiction. Thus, JK says: you are both individual and universal. But you will find a deeper and greater uniqueness to your individuality when you reject the illusory walls of division that are created from the shadows of belief. You are not just joined with all of humanity; you are one with the All that includes us. The code of the entire program of life is written into you, into every vessel of consciousness that appears in any world or universe.
  • So he concludes that accepting the challenge which arises from that complete sense of union with everyone and everything is not a burden or a commandment or an order from a Boss-God or cosmic CEO. It is instead a gift. To make your life into the “response to the challenge” that is this heartfelt realization of non-separateness: that is both our guide and our gift.

IFA metarevolution is the kind of revolution we will one day experience, if our human race doesn’t first self-destruct, that is. The metarevolution will occur within a vast array of human hearts long before its external effects appear. There are certain psychological truths, certain universal realities that must be fully experienced before we become capable of real change. Obama promised change, and six years later America continues to trade, export, and ally with Death. Whenever anyone talks to you of change, by every means run the other way. Change delivered from another pulpit or the barrel of another gun is just the same old shit in a new container.

Now Democrats and other Obamists may object that things would be even worse if the Republicans rather than their man were in charge. To that I say, probably so, I don’t question that. But does it mean we turn away from Krishnamurti’s challenge to our universal reality as formed beings; does it mean we ignore or repress the very thing that could transform us simultaneously as individuals and as societies and nations? Is political affiliation so important that it be allowed to become a brand of despair?

Political institutions cannot create a metarevolution; they are incapable of it, threatened by it, in fact. I think that the Occupy Wall Street movement was a metarevolution — not because of the protests and the occupations of certain small spaces within some of our cities, but because of the mindset that energized it all. I remember talking with Occupiers in New York who said that their fundamental credo was of union, a deep commonality among all people: they even said that the well-known 99%/1% division was artificial, even if compelling. They wanted the 1% to see their place, their self-interest within the movement: if they could realize that they are not above or in any other way separate from all of us, then they would actually join in the work of transformation. They knew this was possible, and suspected (as I do) that it is in fact our inevitably best and sole alternative. Metarevolution.

IFKrishnamurti wasn’t calling for a revolution of spirit or mind or social and political institutions. Those things, he knew, would take care of themselves quite naturally, arise effortlessly from a metarevolution. The experience that enables metarevolution cannot be contained in a speech or a book or a body of law; it must be held without words and shared without exclusion. When Christ advised his followers to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s but to give to god what is god’s, he was not talking about taxes, money, material goods, or even allegiance. He was talking about the life-force of the individual self, which contains and therefore is one with the total energy of the human species and the universal whole.

Those superficial forms of human energy: law, money, government, media, business — they will all remain with us, but they will have to change under the heat of that metarevolutionary light of shared understanding. Metarevolution cannot be inspired by violence or guided by belief; it can only be experienced through the kind of “common sense” that the prototypical American writer of revolution conceived:

The laying a Country desolate with Fire and Sword, declaring War against the natural rights of all Mankind, and extirpating the Defenders thereof from the Face of the Earth, is the Concern of every Man to whom Nature hath given the Power of feeling; of which Class, regardless of Party Censure, is the AUTHOR.

IFPaine begins with a simple declaration: we are all of Nature before we are of any party or social class. Not of God; not of the Prophet; not of the Cross; not of the Law. We are of Nature. Look again at his words: “Nature,” he says, “hath given [us] the Power of…” what? Of intellect? Of religion? Of belief? Of weaponry? Of global dominance? No: of feeling. That, too, is another formulation of Krishnamurti’s teaching and of the truth and mandate of metarevolution. Paine saw that Nature is the star by which the ship of social transformation is truly and reliably steered. Were he among us today, he would surely be either denounced or ignored by both political parties.

The fact that Paine wrote this down amid a time and circumstances that were ready for his message reveals another principle of this natural phenomenon I call metarevolution: great and enduring change is led not by thought or by feeling alone, but via their synergistic union, which begins within the individual and is then shared across the field of consciousness. It does not have to be forced into being, because it is already there; it always was.

The point here, of course, is not to copy or even to model what was done and said back then, in Paine’s time. We must hold that history long enough to draw the energy of its teaching and then surpass it. If Krishnamurti were here, he would urge us to do the same with his teachings (which is what he in fact did urge to his audiences). That is part of the challenge he calls his audience to embrace: if all we care about is how we look before others, then we are no better than the politicians with their image-obsession. We must take the lead, whether we want to or not: it is no longer a matter of throwing the bums out; for other and perhaps even crueler and more blackhearted bums will replace them. We must wake the bums up. This is the way of metarevolution.

Teachings of Night: The Eye of Mindfulness

IFI went this past Monday for what I had been assured would be a simple surgical procedure. Now I have long been of the opinion that the term “simple surgery” is as big an oxymoron as you can get. But I had been living with this cataract in my right eye for over a year, and it was getting difficult to live with more. Therefore, I went to have the thing taken care of surgically.

But I almost didn’t experience it. Like most westerners, I tossed a shroud of expectation lined with denial over the body of this experience; for I was afraid. So as the day approached I kept insisting, “I’ll be happy once it’s done and over with.” That is to say, I was messing with my own mind, skipping presence to indulge a fantasy-future.

IFNow I knew very well that I was playing a game, putting on an act of avoidance that parades as bravery, when it is really the very stuff of ignorance. I saw or sensed the same kind of act being played within my fellow patients at the clinic. I later reflected on how brutishly superficial are the kinds of adaptive mechanisms that we are taught and handed as our only navigational instruments amid such challenges as surgery. It is like being given a plastic butter knife to cut a path through a tropical jungle. No wonder, then, that we quake before the mildest tides of change.

Therefore, I was (or should have been) unsurprised to see that I had a systolic BP of 146 as I was received into the first of the three stages of pre-op. “That’s stunning,” I muttered, “I’ve never measured beyond 135 even while in a hospital.” The nurse assured me it was something they’re quite used to seeing. Just at that moment, an old fellow was wheeled in beside me (most of my fellow eye surgery recipients were older even than me). He tossed a 160 systolic into the squeeze-sleeve, and was visibly disturbed.

IFI realized that the time had come for action — inner action of course. As I was wheeled off to stage two (and even amid my trouble I paused to wonder at the choreographic precision and detail of this entire process and its actors); I felt pressure building in my chest and knew that I had to draw on all this insight of which I make quite a silly pretense in these essays here.

As I was settled into position and re-attached (BP machine, heart monitor, tubes and wires), I crossed my legs zazen-style and began a mindfulness meditation. Attention to breathing, to sounds, to my body’s weight in the plastic recliner. Then to the woman’s voice, the drops in my eye, the fluid running down my face. I called on my old cat Night, who is now a helping energy of cosmic consciousness — her unflappable calm as cat had been ported virtually without upgrade or correction into the formless realm — and asked her to enter my life-space and clear the tension by holding me in the moment, no matter how unpleasant I, the egomaniacal and fear-drunk illusion, happened to find it.

IFBy the time I was wheeled again to stage 3, the OR itself, the pressure in my chest cavity had passed and I sensed that I’d be fine through the rest of it. I maintained that focus, that presence, and that sense of Night’s calming energy, throughout the procedure. Afterward, I needed no time to recover from the effects of the sedative they had administered just before the surgeon had entered. I was able and eager to walk out of there.

The following morning, at the post-op exam, the doc mentioned that it was very rare in his experience to see someone read the 20/20 line on the chart with perfection the day after surgery. So I told him what I had done before the operation and said it would make sense for someone to teach such methods to people well ahead of their surgery dates. He thoroughly agreed with the notion but wondered how it might be done in the current culture.


IFWell, I happen to know that it has been done, and very successfully done. Read any of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books or visit the Center for Mindfulness and you will see a history of success that has been repeatedly verified by research and clinical outcomes. It isn’t a bunch of tree-hugging hoo-hah; it is as strong and as empirically sound as the social sciences can get. And most important of all, it makes sense — deep, inner, animal sense.

Even I, a relative amateur and beginner at this stuff, was able to respond and find some sense of presence in that moment. Obviously, being a bit of a hack, I waited too long and it nearly cost me, I’m certain of that much at least. Nevertheless, I had learned — and unlearned — enough over the years to sense, fairly clearly, the urgency of the moment and the necessary inner action to face it.

IFNow, to anticipate a few likely objections: oh c’mon tree-hugger, you were never in any danger, nor was anyone else — these procedures are a dime a dozen and no one ever gets hurt. Maybe so, I don’t have data, nor does it matter. The point is that I and others were clearly suffering psychologically — needlessly if you take account of the data from UMass General (see the links to Center for Mindfulness above). So it’s not a matter of whether anyone was going to die or become seriously ill from a cataract procedure; the issue is how much more psychologically untroubled an experience it could have been.

Another possible objection may involve the supposed difficulty of meditation, especially in such as setting as a surgery clinic. Now that one I have to allow a little air: yes, meditation takes commitment, time, and practice before it can be done in a busy medical ward. I’ve been practicing fairly regularly for years and still didn’t bring it off very well as I waited for my turn under the knife.

IFBut, done correctly, it would take far less work and time than you’d think. Kabat-Zinn’s clients typically do a one-week course with some “homework” meditation exercises; and if you’ve looked at his data, the results in stress reduction, hypertension management, and overall self-treatment are considerable. Many people spend a lifetime on medications and in hospital stays without attaining equivalent results as those meditators.


Now let me go briefly back to my personal experience at the clinic. The manifest difference between people who manage illness through (or supported by) mindfulness meditation and those who are slaves to drugs and doctors would appear to be that the former are free to have all or part of the control to themselves. And that, to all appearances, is true.

But the actual experience is different from that. It is actually a process of giving up control. I regain myself by releasing my grip on my situation. By opening to the life, the vibrancy that I can’t see and which others deny; I discovered a connection — a broader identity — beyond the walls and instruments of that clinic. I did two things: I accepted my environment and joined it in a way; and then I called out to an old friend who is no longer with me here, but is of a Self that encompasses and surpasses my bodily life. It is what the ancient Indian authors of the Upanishads called Atman.

IF Artists can have a wonderful sense of this, of the All in ordinary and even banal things. I remember how I used to feel nothing at the sight of still-life paintings until one day I glanced at a shirt hanging over the edge of a chair and felt that flash of This-Is-It. Yes, at a glimpse of yesterday’s white shirt dangling in gray morning light, one sleeve tucked and rumpled. In a moment, that sense of the universe-in-a-shirt passed, and life went on. But I gained an appreciation of the still-life from then on.

My Zen teacher told me that he had experienced his first kensho, or enlightenment-moment, while sweeping leaves in a courtyard. I have never really believed in or trusted enlightenment; but I will admit that there are moments of perception that seem to encompass more than the great stream of moments to which we commonly assign importance. Those little, kensho moments are perhaps the ones that prepare us for the big ones: death, loss, aging, isolation, illness, pain, and all the others. The smallest stones make the most solid foundation.

IFAfter Night died, I kept seeing her, out of the corner of an eye, and as if she were moving too quickly for me to follow her with mere human sight. The I Ching told me: of course Night is here, but you must draw upon senses that you have long ignored or denied to perceive her. I decided to trust that insight and to call upon the senses of my cosmic brain.

Thus, I encountered her again while my one physical eye was being repaired (actually, replaced would be the word — I mentioned to the post-op doctor that the eye seemed to have become 30 years younger overnight, and asked him if he could operate on any of my other organs to make them a generation younger). That inner light, which in this life she carried as plainly and effortlessly as her tail, flowed into and around me.

I remained conscious of it just long enough to let go, to completely lose track of control, and therefore of fear. It was another gift, another teaching, from an old friend whose presence is now never quite the same, yet always true.

The Realization of Play

IFThere are lessons, teachings, all around and within us. They are present continually, the flow never stops. It only appears to dry up when we tune it out. But whenever we are open to it, our bodies and our lives carry messages in virtually every moment.

One choice we have to make to enable that openness is to make experience rather than belief the touchstone of our lives. If I were to draw a single distinction between a life guided by institutional religion and one led by personal truth, it would be this: religion is chained by belief; truth is liberated by experience.

Why should I believe in anything when I can experience it instead? Belief must be defended: the history of religion is a history of war. But experience needs no defense; it can simply be trusted, wherever it may lead us. Belief is fixed, carved into stone or law; it has no capacity for change. Experience tends to transmute; it is never quite the same from moment to moment, day to day. Therefore, when we allow experience the lead in our lives, we are far less likely to make that one fatal error of humanity: the impulse to exist severely rather than to live playfully; to, as Alan Watts used to say, take life seriously rather than sincerely.

IFNow you would think that, of all dimensions of human experience, our sports might lead us clearly in this context. But unfortunately, guided mostly by our media, sports as an institutional entity tends to be among the worst offenders of them all in choosing severity and the arrogance of seriousness over play and the genuineness of sincerity. Think of it for a moment, sports fans: never mind the horrible violence, police state machinations, and on-field barbarity that have dominated the recent world cup of soccer/futbol: do you ever hear more mindless diatribes of the most somber and saccharine sentimentality as you do during sports broadcasts? The vocabulary of these rants is often so idiotic that I feel embarrassed for the speaker. I rarely hear words like “eternal,” “forever,” “fame,” and “glory” spoken with such a laughably biblical tone as amid sports broadcasts and publications. And even the best of them fall prey to this impulse: the estimable sports writer for The Nation, Dave Zirin, whose work deserves immense respect, had this on his Twitter feed today about a basketball player*:

IFSo our media and other institutions can teach us absolutely nothing about recovering the natural spirit of play in our lives. It is a distinctly individual quest. This takes me back to the original point I made about the lessons contained in our lives, which flow through our days like the air, fluids, and secretions of and through our bodies. The natural life finds nourishment in experience in precisely the same way as our digestive organs find it in our food. Even a painful or positively toxic experience can guide us forward, just as our bodies can find some scrap of acceptable nutrition in a Big Mac (and god only knows how).

There is a mindfulness in Nature that we tend to do a very poor job of integrating into our lives — not through incapacity but through ignorance or denial, much of which has been trained into us. We are by nature perfectly capable of inward attention, contemplation, and that calmly piercing and playful mindfulness of meditation. Nature has never told us: cats may have it but dogs may not; it will come easily to dolphins but to humans, not so much.

The animals — and I am certain that this is meant to include us — are attentive equally to the visible and the invisible; to the physical and to the supernal — to the quantum and the Newtonian alike, if you will. It is all part of their ordinary experience: the poet Lao Tzu tells us, “the formed and the formless coalesce / like the breaths of lovers.” There is no belief that can compare with such experience. The insight of the playful life penetrates, embraces, and then surpasses the apparent. It makes belief obsolete.

IFI recall one lesson that my old cat Night, about whom I’ve written so often here since her death, used to teach me continually. Whenever I felt broken or depressed or hopeless or self-pitying, she would always come to me with the compassion of her presence. But her eyes, her look, would deliver an added message with their ironic stare: “really, human, this is it? This is what has flattened you and made you prostrate with misery?” It really didn’t matter what the circumstances of the moment happened to be: poverty, loneliness, joblessness, even a death in the family — her look would carry the same message, the same teaching. And it always made me laugh at myself again.

I have occasionally been asked why I use the old Chinese oracle I Ching, and why I would recommend that anyone else use it. The best answer I think I’ve been able to provide to that question is that the teachings of the oracle remind me of all the lessons contained in the ordinary stream of my own life. The best oracles point us back there, to ourselves and to the oracle of daily living.

The I Ching exposes and often lampoons arrogance, immodesty, self-pity, and many other ideological and emotional marks of self-absorption and egocentricity. When we are truly attentive, our lives do the same thing.


*Looking twice at that makes me wonder if Zirin was merely being humorously ironic, in which case my criticism of him falls flat. The key to that interpretation would lie in the choice of the word “forever” in an obviously playful context, surrounded by ellipses after the expression “all-timer.” Overall, my parting point on this is one I have made in a number of conversations: what sports needs is not a great writer but a great comedian. Sports needs its own Stephen Colbert.

Albany: The City That Can’t Walk

IFI live in a town that is positively drunk on gasoline. Strung out like a crack addict on the glass pipe; like the alcoholic on his bottle. In a city where the so-called left-wing political party has dominated for decades, the people of Albany, NY are slaves to gasoline and the automotive culture. When I started commuting here in Albany, I was at first pleasantly shocked to find that I could get a seat on a bus at rush hour. Then I realized why.

This is a city of drivers. Walking and bicycling range from dangerous to impossible in this town. They have some of the trappings of ped-friendliness but none of the reality. I stood once for five minutes at a particularly nasty intersection, waiting for the white walk icon to appear in the ped-crossing sign. It never came. So I wound up doing what peds do all over this town: looked for an opening and ran across the street. If you want to use your feet for anything other than pushing a gas pedal here, make sure you’ve written your will.

Their urban parks are expressways dotted with trees. My life nearly ended in Washington Park one day: I strolled across a narrow paved lane that looked for all the world like a walking path and a massive SUV (the comme-il-faux vehicle of this region) came barreling around the bend and swerved to avoid me at the last instant, its horn blaring in anger at my existence. I have seen one place with a greater tyranny of the automobile: southern California. Otherwise, Albany takes the prize of decadence for this obsession in my experience. The funny thing is that when you bring this addiction to the attention of people here, they bristle with the same defense: “we have no choice.”

I am here to suggest, dear readers and Albany-area residents: you always have a choice. But to choose, you must first be sane and free within. And there’s the rub.

Traffic at the park

Traffic at the park

During my 20-odd years in New York City, I watched it become — even under right-wing mayoral administrations — a city that was increasingly friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, with urban parks that keep vehicles at the margins and people in the center. Prospect Park in Brooklyn has a traffic loop that circumnavigates the park for one-way traffic only. No cars allowed inside the park, and that loop is closed to traffic on the weekends. But here in Albany, two-way traffic lanes weave through and around the parks, which have no wooded areas, no ballfields, no meadows, no hiking trails, no bodies of water aside from scrawny duck ponds, and no sanctuary from the automobile. Again, it is a picture of addiction: all surface and no substance.

As with every addiction, this one is fueled by denial. When I have mentioned my complaints about the parks to the locals here, the response has been: listen Nature-boy, you want Nature, get in your car and drive a few miles and you’ll have woods as thick as you want them. That is to say, they can’t imagine a person living without a car. These people just can’t see that there’s any problem with the carbon culture, aside from the price of gas, that is. With everything that both science and common sense are telling us, this madness is beyond surreal.

People in the park (?)

People in the park (?)

The strangest thing about it all is that Albany is a city whose irony reflects the lives of so many of the individual  people I meet here: a being of vast, untapped, and nearly limitless potential that makes an equally vast pretense of ignorance. I recall thinking one day: god help me for saying it, but this city needs a benign billionaire autocrat like Bloomberg: he would have protected bike lanes and traffic-slowing walkways running throughout this town in no time; there would be trains and an updated bus system extending far out into the exurban areas; the parks would be enlarged, enhanced, and closed to traffic. Much would be done to undermine the dominance of the internal combustion engine.

But trust me: I lived in New York under the Bloomberg corporate hegemony. You don’t want that, Albany; you don’t need it. You can change without the pressure of an autocrat and his corporate police force. You merely have to commit yourself to real change; the kind of change that is the way of Nature and of human nature in its original clarity and freedom. This is what I and others refer to as transformation: the kind of change that awakens the surface by clarifying the substance; that fulfills all potential through the action of the kinetic within; that realizes the unique in stripping away whatever is derived.

IFPeople can do it, and don’t tell me they can’t, because I’ve watched it happen. So it stands to reason, by any logic you wish to apply, that cities of them can do it too. Whether you are a single individual or a city of them, the same simple requirement applies: it all begins with a commitment to the quantum reality of inner truth. The mechanics of appearances will then take care of themselves. It is a choice we can make freely today, so that our children won’t have to accept it fatefully tomorrow.