Maria Donohue: Janacek Piano Sonata

If I believed in pride, that it had any human worth or value, I’d say I’m proud of her. But it’s better to simply say, I admire the kid. This is a breathtakingly beautiful performance of the Janacek, by a breathtakingly beautiful person.

Talking About Death; or, Drinking Water with a Fork

Perhaps you’ve encountered this headline in some of your recent World Weird Web wanderings: Scientists find that consciousness continues after death. If not, click, read, and make of it what you will (or won’t).

I have no particular conclusion to draw from that research; first, because it’s founded on the same flawed probability theories that I’ve criticized before; and second, because the researchers themselves (correctly) draw no conclusions. I’m simply encouraged that scientists are paying attention to this question, which — especially in this era of aging Boomers — looms ever larger in our shared consciousness.

If you’ve read even a little of what I’ve posted here before, then you know that my feeling on this issue is already fairly well formed: of course consciousness goes on after bodily death — what else can it do? The problem with drawing that understanding into yourself and letting it nourish your individual life is that it seems to mean so little when it’s put into words. Such questions don’t respond resonantly to purely verbal explanations — as Watts used to say, using words to talk about such things is like drinking water with a fork. You get just enough inside you to make the thirst burn ever hotter.

Still, it’s a very good thing that scientists are exploring a question that has been the monopolistic property of religions, philosophers and philosophies, metaphysics, and other tribalistic and ideologically-entrenched systems of noise and confusion about the very things on which we need silence and clarity. This, by the way, is why poets and musicians tend to be so deeply insightful about such things as death, spirit, beauty, and truth. The best among these lack any particular tribal affiliation; thus they speak to us like private shamans, or personal spiritual guides with no religious or philosophical branding. How I read Lao Tzu or hear Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites will be different from your experience, though neither of us will be more right or less wrong than the other.

IFThat research on death and consciousness does appear to support a metaphorical sense I’ve had about consciousness, which Watts (among many others) has articulated better than I can — viz., that consciousness (or spirit or soul, if you prefer) is more a kind of “wrapper” rather than something trapped inside our physical bodies. The way I like to think about it is with the admittedly clumsy term of mine, “energy-body.” This term (could it be better expressed as “bodergy” or “enerbody”?) is meant to describe an invisible emanation of the physical body, which I have sensed in such creations as Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man.

With respect to that research, I suspect that consciousness is designed to quickly cross dimensions or universes at the physical body’s death; but perhaps because it is and has been a part of the physical organism for so long, it is confused about where or how to go, to move on at such a moment. Therefore, the findings mentioned in that research — that the energy-body delays; that it stands on that unfamiliar shore with its often alluring light and confusing darkness, and clings backward, as if for support or guidance. This perspective, incidentally, has been well known to the Tibetans for centuries — see Sogyal Rinpoche’s classic for more on that.

The point in discussing all this is not to take you down another rabbit-hole of tribalism and ideology — that is, to attempt a formulaic approach to thinking and feeling about consciousness and death. The point rather is to draw you into your own personal exploration of these matters. Here we are at a moment when scientists are using the best analytical tools they think they have available to them to go into these questions — why not look for yourself, then?

The final point to be made here is perhaps the most crucial: this kind of exploration is fundamental to living, so it’s best done now. Not when you’re older and closer to death; not when you can find a priest, roshi, master, or guru to guide you along that path; nor when science delves deeper into it all for you and delivers The Answer. Because that moment won’t come; you need to open your own inquiry into all this right now. Your energy-body, your personal consciousness, already knows what will happen with it (not to it) when your physical organism dies — why not open a conversation with it now? It knows, not necessarily because it’s been there/done that (i.e., reincarnation); but because it is an intrinsic, inseparable, and essential part of that entirety of consciousness and being and presence and space that has been called many names by many cultures: Sunyata, Brahman, Atman, Tao, Buddha, Dharmadatu, Christ, Allah, Yahweh, God.

Personally (and I emphasize “personally”), I think the word chosen for this experience matters — a lot. “All” is a good one; but I most prefer Whole. The spacey terms that I and others have used are probably too hackneyed and perhaps inaccurate as well: scientists have already posited, with some good evidence, that ours is probably not the only universe in existence; the same may be true of the cosmos as well. So I lean towards a simple, flexible word that’s not too badly beaten with usage; something that can work as both noun and adjective, and which also deeply implies a verb, action, movement.

Finally, “Whole” is an ordinary word with no tribal or biblical baggage of any sort. I am reminded here of the old Zen warning about the “finger pointing to the moon.” If the finger is too big or too strident or too intrusive in its pointing, it tends to obscure our vision of the moon; we wind up looking at the finger rather than its direction. This is precisely what happens to us when we follow religions, philosophies, masters, teachers, priests, and gurus: we are so addled with the affiliation to something or someone that is not ourselves, that we completely lose the experience that we so desperately sought at the beginning — a personal understanding of life, and therefore of death. Idolatry of any sort inevitably destroys our own natural potential for a deeper and truly peaceful understanding, both of ourselves and one another.

To begin with this exploration is to overthrow the demagoguery and muddy fixation of mind that is so often trained into us. Merely to question, to examine, the cause of that mental death, that morbidity of our natural intelligence that is programmed into us by our conditioning — this is to take the first step in opening that conversation with your energy-body that I mentioned earlier. In one of his beautiful talks to children, Krishnamurti once delivered a similar encouragement:

The other morning I saw a dead body being carried away to be burnt. It was wrapped in bright magenta cloth and it swayed with the rhythm of the four mortals who were carrying it. I wonder what kind of impression a dead body makes on one. Don’t you wonder why there is deterioration? You buy a brand new motor, and within a few years it is worn out. The body also wears out; but don’t you inquire a little further to find out why the mind deteriorates? Sooner or later there is the death of the body, but most of us have minds which are already dead. Deterioration has already taken place; and why does the mind deteriorate? The body deteriorates because we are constantly using it and the physical organism wears out. Disease, accident, old age, bad food, poor heredity — these are the factors which cause the deterioration and death of the body. But why should the mind deteriorate, become old, heavy, dull?

The answer is  only seemingly paradoxical: because we do not use it. That is, many of us do not use our own minds, but those of others who, we are trained to believe, are wiser, more powerful or authoritative, more eloquent, or more sacred than ourselves. But think of this for just a moment: if what I am suggesting here is even remotely true — that your mind, your energy-body, your consciousness, is joined in its very essence to that which I call the Whole — then doesn’t it make sense that you rely upon your own natural longing to understand your source, origin, and destination? Doesn’t it make sense that you find out for yourself, without regard for scriptures, Bibles, vedas, or double-blind probabilistic research studies? After all, you don’t want to start this journey of the ultimate discovery and nourishment by drinking water with a fork.

To be sure, some of that derived stuff from other minds may come into it and make some sense as you make and explore your own discoveries. But it begins within you, where the words and beliefs of others cannot inhibit your own mind, your own experience; and it can begin right now.

Gravity and Gratitude

Someone does indeed increase him;
Ten pairs of tortoises cannot oppose it.
Sublime good fortune.
— Yijing, Hexagram 41 (“Decreasing”), line 5*

I sit naked before the open eastern window. The light of the sun rising over this ragged and flea-bitten city touches my feet. The breeze from the other, western-facing window touches my back. I call out in silence to the breath of Nature, asking that it cleanse me of self-imagery and belief and fear, and draw me further into the embrace of its harmony. I ask that the ego — that is, the illusion of collective belief and private dread — be stripped from my body, my life, my consciousness, and be burned in the fire of transformation; just as the incense that burns at the window changes into the aromatic smoke of beauty.

Appeal is the realm of the superficial, and it fades. Beauty is from the depths and therefore endures. I ask that the superficial be burned from within me, so that the fragrant light of beauty may be given room to rise and expand from that bed of ashes. I realize, amid the warm passion of gratitude, that I no longer need hide from or deny the supreme and pervading force of the universe, which is Love.

Scientists tell us that gravity — the cosmic force of attraction — is by far the weakest of the four known forces of Nature.** Yet it is also the most pervasive, the most indomitable for its mere omnipresence. This is precisely how natural Love works within and among us. It doesn’t force its way along with explosive might or violent cunning; its just draws things together.

Between these open windows in the quiet city whose children still sleep, I sense this presence of love’s quantum gravity. The gratitude that flows through me with its gentle passion is simply the pulse of something within me that feels the fullness of that weak but omnipresent force whose energy is increase rather than acquisition; love rather than attachment — the reception that occurs within whenever I dare to let go.

Purification is not a task, nor is it a commandment from a punishing, brutish, and distant God. Purification is a gift. Its action is letting go; its music is the cosmic harmony; its energy is Love. For a few minutes, I am able to dwell in this gift and my gratitude that answers it. It wafts through me with its cleansing breath, like the breeze that penetrates the darkness of the barren city, around and within me.

*Increase, in the Yijing, has nothing to do with accumulation or the obsession with money. Natural increase is of the heart and of that wealth that is available to all of us, for we have never been without it: the wealth of truth, integrity, health, material sufficiency, and love. This increase assures us that, though we may be in solitude, we are never lonely. As for the “ten pairs of tortoises”: I am convinced that this is the addition of an editor, perhaps from the Confucian period several centuries after the original creation of the Yijing’s text. I get the feeling that this editor had a sense of humor, too. It is a joke about the human obsession with opposition and fear, based on the ancient Chinese superstition about the tortoise as a magical and even godly creature.

**Which are, of course, Electromagnetism, the Strong and Weak Nuclear Forces, and Gravity.

Opening the Window

A jug of wine, a bowl of rice with it; earthen vessels simply handed in through the window. There is certainly no blame in this.

aftersandyAmid what is typically regarded as one of the darkest hexagrams of the old Chinese oracle, I Ching, there comes this line. Hexagram 29 is variously translated as “The Abyss,” “Danger,” “Darkness,” and “The Abysmal.” In his outstanding online commentary to this hexagram, Jim DeKorne writes, “…it is usually received with trepidation. Like the Death card in Tarot, it is often interpreted as an evil omen…”

The line I’ve quoted above, line 4, is one of those messages that can, no matter how ravaged or troubled you may feel, deliver a soft glow of consolation. This is art’s sacred task; and the I Ching is — notwithstanding all the spooky and magical nonsense with which it has been burdened — above all a work of art. Terence McKenna may have been right to say that the oracle is not magic but science we don’t yet understand; but for me its artistic essence is already manifest to anyone who encounters it with a searching mind and an open heart.

The line’s metaphor both penetrates and illuminates the overall context of the 29th hexagram, which is about the fears, depression, and sense of entrapment that all too frequently invade our inner lives, often under no acute or commensurately painful external stimulus. I don’t think I’m just an oddball here, because I’ve counseled people and talked with friends who have told me about this strange (but seemingly common) experience — of a sudden and consuming sense of loss, waste, ruin, hopelessness, and despair. It can come at any time: on waking up in the morning; during the drive home from work; or amid some late evening moment when the hissing, sputtering blue glow of the television no longer has the power to divert the mind from that crushing inner darkness.

But again, there is often no objective cause to this sense of “the abysmal.” We are not ill, yet we feel the icy grip of death; we may have family and friends, but feel an intolerable sense of loneliness; we might have status, money, and assets in abundance, yet we walk under a shroud of loss, emptiness, and waste. Why?

I don’t want to pretend to answer such a question; only to explore it, and to invite those of you who are like-minded to explore it within your own lives. Let’s return to line 4 of Hexagram 29 and listen to its teaching in the light of what we have considered to this point:

A jug of wine, a bowl of rice with it; earthen vessels simply handed in through the window. There is certainly no blame in this.

Commentators on this line often create a literal portrait of that sense of entrapment and isolation mentioned above: they imagine one in a prison, receiving help and nourishment (the wine and the rice, delivered in plain earthen vessels) through the window of his jail. The source of this help is not named or otherwise indicated; and that’s part of the message here. Sometimes it is the mere opacity of our darkness that attracts the light of healing; and until we are freed from the cage of our inner oppression, it neither matters nor occurs to us what the medium of that light may be.

Now I suppose is the time for a personal confession: I recently received this line during a session with the oracle. I have allowed its message to dance through me for days, like the tune of a song that paces around the back of your brain; and suddenly the oracle of daily life called me to the central metaphor of that line. I was walking to work and saw a closed window with a layer of iron bars over its lower half: you need to open your window.

It was a small, perhaps even a trivial, realization. But it is enough for now. If my window is closed, the help can’t reach me; but if I can open just a little, there will be space between the bars for the wine and the rice to get through.

windowHere again is another example of how art can guide us through tough times. I can adopt my spookiest new-age voice and urge you to open up within and become a spiritual receiver; but it will most likely have no effect. But this little poem delivers an image you can hold onto; a visual point of orientation and reference. It’s a little easier to feel a window opening within yourself than to deal in empty abstractions. This is the practical use and benefit of art: it makes what might be abstruse or esoteric into something palpable, immediate, and personal.

Let me stay with my recent experience a little longer — not to hold it up as an example to be followed, but as an illustration of how this principle of what I call supra-communication can work. By “supra-communication” I simply mean the conversation that occurs between manifest experience and our connection with the universe at large — what is sometimes called the noumenon. Imagine a simple Venn diagram whose twin circles are the visible and invisible realms of experience — their intersection or point of connection is the arena of supra-communication. What follows is a plain instance  of that.

I’ve been fighting with this window in my apartment, and the window has been winning. Until recently, to open it required a great deal of force — specifically, an upward blow to the cross-piece at the top. Being an average American male, I finally resorted to WD-40 to the track and sides of the window. The thing now opens with a gentle push. That this all occurred amid the week that I was working with the images of line 4 of Hexagram 29 is no random coincidence — it is the objective world of matter and experience talking with the oracular world, the realm of inner experience that includes and surpasses thought, calculation, and self-consciousness. Inner windows are, like physical windows, meant to open smoothly and easily. That is their nature, their design. This is a lesson I’ve been able to take back into my meditations and to other activities in which I communicate with the invisible world (e.g., physical exercise, housecleaning, writing, and working with the I Ching).

In both instances — my physical struggle with a window and my emotional fight against fate and circumstance — I discovered that progress lay not in winning the combat but in taking it off the battlefield. Victory can’t be had at either end of the bar of hard and easy: a commitment to hard work and struggle is inevitably as useless as a slick shortcut. Solutions arise when we step off the bar and leave both hard and easy behind.

This becomes fairly obvious once we start asking questions of our experience. I’ve lived here over a year, having the same stupid fight with a window — why did it take me so long to apply the right correction? For some 4 decades I’ve used the I Ching; for 13 of those years I’ve applied what my teachers call “The Cosmic Way” — why has it taken a late-life crisis in a grungy, politically fetid, poverty-stricken, and fleabitten capital city, far away from my home city, for me to even begin to understand with my whole body this lesson in opening to the beauty of the invisible world?

Believe me, there are no answers to such questions — they only invite self-abasement and self-contempt. And this brings me to the last part of that oracle: “There is certainly no blame in this.” When the window of the true self opens — even (as in my case) just a crack — the breeze that enters wafts away the smoke and toxic bluster known as blame, especially the variety called self-blame. This is a gift as valuable as any financial wealth and as palpable as the touch of a beautiful woman. Purification is not a task; it is a gift. But you can’t make it arrive by practicing spooky or difficult spiritual arts of attainment; nor through the cult of sacrifice; nor by making deals of esoteric commerce with an insular and punishing external Deity. It is enough to simply open the window.

Love and Sacrifice


“Home,” I thought, almost wanting to shout the word out loud. I was back home in Brooklyn last weekend, walking through Prospect Park as I have done thousands of times over the decades that I lived near there. Home: though I will likely never live there again, I will never stop knowing it as home. I owe that park a lot: it has given me so much and asked nothing in return. We can only give back to our home the same gifts it brought us: awareness, presence, and love. This is true also of the home inside us.

Love doesn’t make sacrifices, only investments. Anything given from the heart is returned to the giver, multiplied. This is such a common experience that it is a wonder why it isn’t adumbrated as a natural law.

Yet we remain, all too readily, suspicious and cynical. Why? Is it because many of us have never had that experience of seeing love’s ROI [Return On Investment]? That could be part of it. Is it because we are so deeply trained in the cult of sacrifice — through our religions, our moralistic acculturation, and our potty-training in the fathomless debt-culture known as Duty? That would seem to comprise much of the substance of those hard shells of fear and defense, with which we burden ourselves and our lives.

But I’d like to take this all the way back to certain fixed ideas about love itself. Many of us are deeply poisoned with the belief that love is, as Lao Tzu ironically observed, “a game of inner commerce.” This is where the economic metaphor I began with breaks down; for love is not a capitalist emotion. Specifically, love does not calculate. Calculation is fueled by expectation; true love has no expectations. Therefore, love’s return is not a payback in the capitalist sense — it is far more real and enduring than that.

plutoheartYet we are trained to feel a sense of ownership of and by our beloved. It just occurred to me again recently as I was looking at the heart-shape on the planet Pluto that recently raged across the World Wide Web: I imagined the words “Be Mine” across that shape.

Now this is obviously about more than messages on Valentine’s candy; it is about an emotional cult of ownership. For though possession, as the bromide goes, may be nine-tenths of the law; it is in fact the antithesis of Love. Wherever there is a claim, love is gone. Whenever a stake is planted in its ground, the heart sickens. And possession is the very essence of our cultural ideas of love, even of its experience for many of us. The marriage vow opens not with the words, “I love thee,” but “I take thee…”

Possession is a kind of madness, perhaps one of the defining signs of interpersonal neurosis. It is no coincidence, I suspect, that the word possession also means a mental or spiritual state in which one is taken over by a demon, witch, or malevolent spirit. For many people, to possess is to be possessed.

So psychologically, possession is less about the pursuit of material than it is about the defense of a delusion. That delusion is security — the safe certainty of owning and being owned, with all the walls of tradition and law that are typically built up around that airy complacency, which Krishnamurti consistently exposed for us:

The confidence of a man who can do things, who is capable of achieving results, is always coloured by this arrogance of the self, the feeling, “It is I who do it”. So, in the very act of achieving a result, of bringing about a social reform within the prison [of society], there is the arrogance of the self, the feeling that I have done it, that my ideal is important, that my group has succeeded. (from Think on These Things)

This arrogance is not the action of love — it is, in fact, the active expression of fear. This is what happens to security when it becomes the object of a cult of possession. Whatever is owned must also be guarded: this is the political religion of our current era, in which the founding principles of a nation are sacrificed to a god named Security and Its only begotten son, Possession.

Krishnamurti contrasted that paper complacency that is the confidence of arrogance with another kind of confidence, which he called the “confidence of innocence.”

Now, if you can see through this whole social structure, the cultural pattern of the collective will which we call civilization…then you will find that there comes a confidence which is not tainted with the sense of arrogance. It is the confidence of innocence. It is like the confidence of a child who is so completely innocent he will try anything.

Christ told us that you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, didn’t he? What if he meant exactly the same thing as Krishnamurti — “It is this innocent confidence that will bring about a new civilization; but this innocent confidence cannot come into being as long as you remain within the social pattern.”

The money-changers and their corruption, their arrogance, are always in the temple; for the temple is within our selves. Therefore, just as Christ saw the necessity to violently usurp their position (knocking over the trading tables in the temple), Krishnamurti urges us that “it is only those who are in constant revolt that discover what is true, not the man who conforms, who follows some tradition.” True love never conforms to any rule, any law, any tradition; it never looks beyond itself for authorization. The priest and the politician deal only in fear and acquisition; but the utterly free individual expresses the natural courage of innocence and its abundance. As Lao Tzu said, love gives endlessly yet is never depleted. Where there is love, there is never lack.

Perhaps this is what I meant by love being defined by investment rather than sacrifice. It is a well that never goes dry. The one who loves truly never runs out of resources, for love is self-nourishing, self-replenishing. So its investment is not toward a return or reward; love’s investment is in itself, for that is all it needs.

The beauty and importance of the home out-here cannot be slighted. If the chance arose that would call me back to Brooklyn — to home — I would be there in less than a heartbeat. But, especially amid dislocation, the home in-here must be given as much pride of place as our sincerity, humility, and self-awareness can provide it.