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Taking it Easy

May 27, 2017

I’m starting on a ten-day vacation, after a seemingly unending, difficult, bleak and cold eight months that challenged my ability to continue manifesting my values. As recently as five days ago we still needed a fire in the wood stove at night. If I follow the political news, I am kept in a permanent state of aggravation, as much with those who espouse my own values as with those who do not. One side offends my concepts of what is simple decency, the other comes off as stridently demanding and belittling of everyone who does not follow a path of virulent resistance. While I agree that one cannot compromise with destructive energies and must stand firmly against them, I do not agree that the best way to resist is to refuse to be educated on the steps that negative other is taking. Not participating in a bipartisan committee, for example, makes absolutely no sense to me. Forcing government to a halt hurts everyone and, based on past experience, builds resentment against the entity that causes the work stoppage.

Yes I am appalled that a candidate can slug a reporter who asked a legitimate question, and still be elected. But I am equally appalled that an organization which bills itself as supportive of democratic action would try to shame someone into providing it with financial support, as though shaming is not also an assault.

So for my vacation I am not only taking time off from work. I will be taking time off from reading news headlines, and from the swamp that our national political life has become. Balancing home chores with days of travel, seeing some of the extraordinary beauty of the Southwest where I’m happy to live, and balancing that with a visit to the unique artificiality of the city which stole its name from the one near my home. Las Vegas has appropriate meaning in New Mexico, surrounded as it is by rolling prairie. The Meadows doesn’t describe the desert from which gambling has pulled a neon mecca for greed.

Achieving, maintaining, exhibiting, respecting balance in all aspects of living is what has been most challenging for me this past winter season. I’ve seen myself pushed to choosing an extreme action, without realizing until it has happened what concepts caused that intolerance. I’m prepared to stand by the choices my actions manifested, although I am also aware that no choice of how to live is irrevocable.

Having a fair amount of time for “being” rather than “doing” in this short vacation period assures me of the opportunity to examine the effects of some choices and alter them or not, as a calmer and more balanced perspective dictates.

I do wonder why it’s so challenging to retain a sense of balance, to look before leaping, and to act rather than react?

laidbackUndoubtedly Mr. Patience Kat has the answer.

Les Deux

January 27, 2017

This , is not my usual post. There is one of those coming in the next few days. This is just a picture, sharing a good thing in my daily life that is helping energize me to rejoin the blogging community.

Akirri is an Akita and German Shepherd mix, just 4 months old now and whip smart. Her name means Christmas in the Ngui language.

Miss Kitty is her new play toy, well able to defend herself and show a mere dog who’s boss.

They both came to us over the holidays.

Aw, come on down, please.

Aw, come on down, please.

Sounds of Silence

October 1, 2013

First, I should explain that a different type of silence was imposed on me over the weekend, preventing me from putting up this post when I intended to do so, on Sunday afternoon. The internet link at the motel where I was staying was somehow incompatible with my computer, and the IT people weren’t able to reset it properly. I am back home, and once again connected – able to ‘speak’.

Thank you for patience, for reading, for following, for being there.

Niki
**************


Noise pollution is one of the issues not being adequately discussed in relation to my county’s examination of a proposed fracking ordinance. I brought the topic into the discussion, and I have to keep raising it as others focus insistently on water quality and scarcity, and contamination of the air and soil. By comparison I suppose noise can be considered a less significant negative – but not to me.

I live in the countryside – what most people would consider a truly rural area. My small 900 square foot house is set back from the road, on four acres, abutting a several-hundred-acre ranch. I have three neighbors – houses close to the road with entrance driveways off it, in a cluster with my own entryway. Across the road are two more homes. Most of the time, those neighbors are quiet – so much so that I wonder if they are at home. No loud parties, nor growling outdoor machinery.

I do hear traffic on the highway. My house is situated on a hill toward which the road heads before it veers off, resulting in the longish driveway that snakes from the road up over a hill to my front door. Sitting in my living room, looking out its floor to ceiling windows, I can see a section of the road, and all the vehicles that travel up and down it. I cannot see – but can hear clearly – the heavy trucks and the rattle of gravel excavation that is going on a further 2 miles away, on a section of land that “ought” not to be considered to be in my neighborhood. Something about the lay of the valley funnels that noise straight up to my house.

The gravel operation is new this summer. I don’t know yet if I’ll notice it when my windows are closed, but I am very aware now, with windows wide open, of the days it is running and those, like today, when it is not. Perhaps I’m more sensitive than other people to the ambient noise within which I live?

I do not like to have music playing “in the background” of my days. I work better, think better, live better in silence. I enjoy music, go to concerts, play records (there’s an oldie for you) or CDs with intention to listen to them – emphasis on the intention to listen. If my intention is to work, I prefer to do so in silence.

Undoubtedly, that preference has something to do with my enjoyment of Quaker Meeting, and Buddhist zazen sessions, as well as my own daily spiritual contemplative practice. Undoubtedly it also has something to do with my appreciation of the skill of the young musicians from Curtis Institute who performed Britten’s Quartet #3 for Strings at a recent Music From Angel Fire concert near my home. Two of the piece’s five movements, including the last one, end with a prolonged silence defined by the musicians holding their bows immobile above the strings of their instruments until, as one, they relaxed in their seats, signaling the end of the silence that was part of the movement, and the beginning of the silence into which the audience could inject its noises of appreciation.

Once before, many years ago in Boston, I attended a concert which featured a piano performance that included long silences as part of the piece, and then too I was able to ‘hear’ the difference in quality between the silence that was integral to the music, and the silence of the piece’s end. That time, as I recall, I had no visual cue. I was sitting too far back, in the cheap seats, to see the pianist’s hands. I could only rely on my ears, and the pianist’s flawless sense of timing, to distinguish when musical silence transitioned to an appreciative silence from the audience, which in turn transitioned into loud applause.

A few of my acquaintances seem to understand what I mean when I express my awareness of the difference between the silence of Quaker Meeting, and that in a Zendo. Even the famously silent Meetings (the oldest, historical ones in Philadelphia) which I have attended, have a busy-ness to them, a sense of minds occupied with focused reflection, that is distinctly different from the no-thought silence of a practiced group of Buddhists in meditation. And different again from the life in silence of the Benedictines (and their guests) living at Christ in the Desert Monastery. Different yet again from the experience of many hundreds of chelas (students), attending to the silent communication from our Beloved Teacher at a MasterPath gathering. Dare I say that there are many different sounds of silence?

(Yes I know the Simon and Garfunkle song The Sound of Silence. It doesn’t fit into my narrative because the song is about the negative aspect of silence – silence as a barrier to communication and a symptom of loneliness.)

We seem, in the modern urgency of tuned-in lives, to have forgotten the old adage that silence is golden. We settle for the silver, the copper, even the dross of noisy, busy “I’m somebody, doing something important” daily life and think we are fulfilling ourselves. Just yesterday, I had a Facebook ‘chat’ with a young friend who is torn between his desire to study the classical languages necessary to read ancient Buddhist texts in their original, and the supposedly practical necessity of getting a degree in a subject that can lead to a job. How practical is it, to go against one’s nature, to ignore the still, small, inner voice directing one toward a path of spiritual fulfillment, in favor of a loud, outer, boisterous demand to focus on earning a living?

Inside golden silence, there is much to hear and learn. Whole worlds of perception, of wisdom, exist within our inner silent spaces. Would that we all, individually and collectively, were more insistent on spending time in that beautiful silence within! Would that we all, individually and collectively, could share the golden wealth to be acquired from listening to the songs of the Divine played so beautifully within us. Listen…. and you will hear…

Night Blooms

August 10, 2013

A night-blooming cereus hangs from the ceiling of my living space, in a large pot supported within a chain and wire basket. It sends ‘arms’ in all directions, tries to push tendrils between the cracks of a beam and board ceiling, and generally does its best to mimic the hedge of its natural, wild state. Periodically I have to detach bits that are adhering to nearby window shades, or creeping through the ornamental Asian brooms hanging on the wall close to the plant. The cereus recreates a jungle environment for a large wooden fork and spoon from the Philippines and two woven straw brooms from Vietnam. And every so often, it blooms. On rare occasions two blossoms at once.

Mini-jungle

Mini-jungle

The flowers begin as tiny shoots attached to a leaf, indistinguishable from those which will in fact become new leaves. They seem to hide themselves among the foliage for a week or more, until they become large enough to be recognizably a flower bud. They then take an additional several days to enlarge, standing outward at a sharp right angle from their support, before opening fully late one night (usually close to midnight).

Almost there

Almost there

During the brief hours of full bloom, the flowers give off a delicate sweet scent, a single flower sufficient to perfume the ten-by-eighteen foot room.

Fully open

Fully open

Over the next few hours the flower closes and its supporting stem collapses, so that by morning the entire leaf appendage is hanging straight down and the leaf seems to beg for relief from the dead weight.

Exhausted

Exhausted

As often as I have watched this process through (admittedly not staying awake much after the fullness of blooming) I remain unable to predict exactly which night the flower will choose to open, nor have I been able to discern what triggers the plant to produce a bloom. It has flowered in all seasons, no more frequently when on a diet of bloom booster than when it is only given water. Sometimes, the shoot-to-bloom process takes six days, others it takes almost two weeks. Cereus fans whom I’ve found online tell similar stories of inability to predict blooming. One lucky person lives with a cereus “in its natural habitat” as a hedge, and is able to enjoy flowers night after night, perfuming her entire garden.

Cereus flowers are the unexpected, unpredictable sweet things in life, arriving unnoticed, while our attention is elsewhere – on daily chores, dwindling bank account, or perhaps the aches and physical challenges of aging. Focused on job applications, I come across an email from a friend, appreciative of some quality I’ve begun to doubt can be seen by potential employers. Engaged with the daily task of treating my Shih Tzu’s eye, I am surprised when his kisses replace his usual wriggly impatience with my care. And wading through waist-high weeds to reach the bird feeder, I curb my irritation at the discomfort, instead appreciating such a vital, flourishing response to rain in what has been a desert wasteland.

We are admonished to remember to ”stop and smell the roses.” Roses have thorns. There are all sorts of philosophical and historical entanglement associated with roses. So I prefer to think of the many gifts I receive – a funny, affectionate limerick from a friend, a smile of welcome from a cashier, glorious banks of cloud in sunset hues – as daytime cereus blossoms, all the sweeter for being for being unexpected and transitory.

Whoooo Are Youoooo?

July 13, 2013
I Dare You...

I Dare You…

The neurology course I finished last month on line, through Coursera – and the Cardiac Resuscitation Science one I just finished – both touched briefly on brain phenomena which have been observed to accompany what people describe as near death experiences. By wiring up Hospice patients to study brain patterns as life ends, or monitoring brain activity in the emergency room during CPR and defibrillation, scientists have observed bursts of brain activity which accompany the last moments of life – and which also occur in those who are “brought back”.

I’m not sure where I stand with regard to the effort to explain all cognitive experiences in terms of brain physiology. On one hand, the brain is fascinating in its complexity, flexibility, capability – and in the fact that there is so much we still don’t know about how it functions. On the other hand, I am strongly drawn to a spiritual life that knows phenomena by direct, non-mental, experience. It’s an easy out to say that when we fully understand the brain, we will fully understand transcendental experiences. I am more inclined to maintain that when we fully understand the brain we will fully understand that not all phenomena of experience can be explained by physiology.

How I wish that I could inquire of my three year old Shih Tzu what his experience was when he recently flat-lined and was resuscitated with extended CPR at the vet’s during what should have been a routine, minor surgery. When I picked him up he showed only the usual post-anesthesia grogginess – and his recovery was reasonably normal for what he’d experienced. It took him a few days to regain easy movement after the bruising and soreness from chest compressions, and he slept more than usual for about a week. He now seems his normal self in most activities, but there is a slight yet noticeable change in his personality (okay, his behavior, if you prefer a more rigorous, scientific terminology).

From puppyhood a rousing, adventurous and typical “boy”, Shian Shung would tussle with all comers, chase after rabbits, try to dominate larger dogs at the food bowl and to herd the neighbor’s horses if they came too close to ‘his’ property He manifested an assertive command of his life. He accepted human affection and tolerated my ministrations to his infected eye, but would generally leave people with the impression that, catlike, he was gracing us with only a portion of his attention and that only for a limited amount of time before more pressing demands took him off into the fields or to a game with his peers. (I have four dogs and a cat, while neighbor dogs and cats – including the striped and stinky variety – regularly visit our acreage).

Since his resuscitation, Shian Shung has been seeking out human contact, wanting to spend time on laps or in the house around people. Just today, he tried to climb into the car of a new person coming to our home, rather than standing to one side as he used to do, barking to let her know she was on his turf. He is as energetic as usual, but milder and less dominating of the other dogs. And he has stopped chasing the cat. Because he has “seen the Light?” He was intubated during the CPR and did not suffer oxygen loss to the brain, so cell death in motor or instinctive behavior areas did not occur and thus cannot be invoked as a cause of his behavior change.

Personality is the subtlest of the selves by which we are known and recognized. One might say it is the aspect of oneself closest to one’s real essence, or core reality. Changes in personality do occur with changes in brain function, as often happens with the onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. But that does not obviate the possibility that a personality change can occur without any apparent change in brain function. The sense of self we all recognize as part of our being and project through our personality has, as it were, a life of its own. If we suffer brain damage from accident or chemical changes, we may behave differently but we retain – in almost all cases – our ‘selfness’ unaltered.

How I wish I could inquire of Shian Shung whether he recognizes his changed behavior (personality)!

I think I’m on solid ground when I project that he would not be aware that he has changed, just as we humans are rarely aware, until circumstances or another person force the point, that we have begun to respond differently than we did in the past. We think of ourselves as impatient people striving to improve until one or more situations arise which we handle with a consummate patience for which we are praised. “Oh,” we say. And look back at our behavior with some surprise, recognizing that we have indeed been patient, not only in the most recent encounter but also, upon reflection, in those of the past several months as well. The interesting question is whether we then alter our self-concept to include being patient, or continue to cling to the idea that we are impatient but ‘doing better on occasion.’

There so often is a disconnect between so-called reality, and our perceptions of it, especially when the subject of the perception is some aspect of ourselves. Humans are famous for perceiving themselves as fatter or thinner or older or uglier than reality – the consensus of others – dictates. Some of us can feel fat one minute and not-so-fat a few minutes later (when trying on new clothes for example) despite there being no change whatsoever in our actual size. How much more flexible, and divorced from reality, are our perceptions of our personalities.
So who are we, really? A body commanded by a brain to move through time and space? A mind inhabiting and directing a body to move through time and space? A Soul or Spirit temporarily linked to a mind and body and animating it within time and space? Something else altogether?

If Shian Shung could communicate with me about his death and resurrection, would he express it in terms similar to those used by people to describe their own near death experiences? Or would the fact that the canine brain differs significantly from a human brain mandate that the experience be perceived differently? I wish I knew – or do I?

Each advance in science, seeking answers to these ancient questions, seems over the course of recorded history to have only raised new versions of the same questions. Quantum physicists posit abstract entities, the descriptions of which sound a great deal like the energies that mystics have attempted to describe with terms like Soul or spirit. Neurologists use the laws of physics to describe brain function at the level of the neuron. Neuroscientists have completed experiments which purport to show that neurons are activated in support of one option in an either/or choice milliseconds before the subject becomes conscious of deciding to act. From these results, they propose that free will, like the concept of a self which is separate from brain function, is an illusion – a byproduct of brain functioning.

A contrarian argument arises – that the need to believe brain function can explain all aspects of human experience, is itself a brain-generated belief and not the ‘choice’ of a rational, scientific mind. I need to stop at this point. Taking the iterations any farther will land me in the far reaches of hypothetical thinking, and I will have come full circle once more from science to philosophy, from the brain to the Self or Soul – without knowing anything more about the inner experiences of my dog.

For now, I am content that he survived, that he is healthy, and that he enjoys time on my lap.


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