Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Sounding Joy

[This article first appeared in my A to Zen column in the November/December issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

Every day at 6:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. the bells ring out from the monastery.
Perched on a mesa overlooking Mission Valley, nestled in the quiet San Diego neighborhood of Normal Heights, the Carmelite Monastery is home to the daughters of St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic. The nuns live simple lives of silence and contemplative prayer. Keeping with tradition, the bells are rung by a different nun every day so their rhythm and cadence varies – an aural expression of the unique human hands on the other end of the rope.
These cloistered mystics have little interaction with the outside world, yet the sound of the bells penetrates every fiber of matter in a two mile radius – the homes and bodies of thousands of people. For 82 years, twice a day, nearly 60,000 times, these bells have startled an entire community out of their distracted, busy minds and into the sacred thrum of this present moment; the ringing clarity of the here and now. Sound does that. It gets your attention. It passes unimpeded through every cell of your body and leaves you changed.
The Book of Genesis tells us that in the beginning God spoke the world into being. He could have pointed his mighty finger or simply intended the universe into existence with his divine mind, but instead he chose sound and language as his creative medium – the original spoken word artist. “Let there be light,” he said. And there was light. And it was good.
In an act of alchemy the spoken word transforms intangible thoughts into physical vibrations that travel through the air and alter distant objects, even the fabric of reality itself. Words have power. The well-intentioned nursery rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” turns out to be disingenuous if not downright false. While it is true that no one can shame us without our permission, it is also true that violent hate speech greases the skids to actual violence. Stemming one curtails the other. Words, it turns out, are real things.
This is why the Buddha made Right Speech one of the eight steps of the Noble Eightfold Path. If we are serious about transforming consciousness, then along with increased mindfulness, right action, and meditation, we must learn to use words thoughtfully, compassionately, and truthfully. As Don Miguel Ruiz pointed out in The Four Agreements, our negative self-talk is the first place to start. If the spiritual practice of being impeccable with our word is to bear any fruit, it must begin with self-affirmations strong enough to counteract a lifetime of habitual self-loathing and denigration.
And by the way, in case you were wondering, when a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it, it does not make a sound. The impact of the tree makes waves in the air that travel a mile in five seconds, or 767 miles per hour. These waves cannot properly be called “sound” until they are perceived by a hearer. When they hit our eardrum our brain converts these waves of soundless energy into an experience called “sound.” Sound, like color, exists only in the mind of the perceiver, not in the outer world. Perception is an inside job.
So it is that sound connects us to each other and to the outer world in an intimate, symbiotic way. We co-create the perceptual field in concert with the stimuli around us. We are all creators who hear and speak the world into being.
Every time the nuns ring the bells, despite their vows of silence and chastity, they join with us and with the world in a way that transcends the categories of corporeal and spiritual. Sound joins us to each other and to ourselves by avowing our boundless, indefinable nature. The toll of the bell moves through us and shifts us on a molecular level. Throughout world philosophy this truth is affirmed – the soul itself is a musical harmony, and the sound emitted by all things impacts the physical and metaphysical composition of all other things. In this way, we are all one in sound. May we have the ears to hear the needs of others. May we speak the truth, and sing our love. May we choose to create instead of destroy. May we repeat the sounding joy in this and all seasons.

Friday, September 5, 2014

After the Loss

So a loved one died, or you got divorced, or you didn’t get the job you wanted. Unforeseen health challenges make real your mortality. The recognition you worked so hard for went to someone else. The childhood fantasy of what your life was supposed to look like failed to materialize. Mounting losses threaten to topple over and bury you in a landslide of broken rubble. How do you keep going? How do you teach yourself to give a damn? Is there any way to rediscover your original, childlike enthusiasm and zeal?
Of course there is. But it isn’t easy. Healing the wounds inflicted by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune requires a steady effort and the many hands of a community. Our innate tendency to isolate has to be overcome through sheer will power. And the paradox is this – healing and wisdom rise up from within our own nature, yet they are drawn to the surface by the pull of the love we share with each other. We rend in monologue; we mend in dialogue. We heal ourselves, but only when we give ourselves over to something beyond ourselves.
A lot of us walk around grieving. We are ringed round with loss. We are born wanting, and it’s inevitable that multitudes of our endless needs go unmet. We want those we love to live forever. We want the recognition, admiration, or at least acceptance of our peers. We want our friends and family to love us on our terms, not theirs. We want different bodies, different hair, and different settings in which to show off our new fabulous forms. We want more money, more things, and a solid gold guarantee that none of it will ever be taken away from us. These endless cravings orchestrate a steady background hum of anxiety, depression, and resentment that characterizes so much of modern life. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
In her 1969 tour de force On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross identified five stages common to people in grief. Since then many others have amended and elaborated this typology, however, it still stands as a useful guide for people in grief. And that means all of us.
The first stage is denial and isolation. In grief and loss we tend to withdraw. It’s often rooted in embarrassment – we want to conceal the overwhelming emotional disintegration bursting through our carefully maintained façade. And on a more compassionate note, we simply don’t want to burden anyone around us with our pain – they’ve got their own to deal with. Or worse still we just plain refuse to acknowledge the facts before us. We wear our denial like armor.
The second stage is anger. Our unprocessed grief curls up like a snake and strikes at any convenient target – our loved ones, the doctors, the medical establishment as a whole, the bureaucracy that always accompanies death and dying, or even total strangers. How much road rage and domestic violence, I sometimes wonder, is the inappropriate purging of bottled up grief?
The third stage is bargaining. We’d do anything for a do-over. We blame ourselves and wish we could go back in time and make different choices. If only we had done this. If only we had said that. Knowing what we know now, every past decision and action gets subjected to the withering scrutiny of our self-loathing, judgmental second-guessing.
The fourth stage is depression. When it finally becomes clear that there’s no going back, a certain doom descends on the landscape. They really are gone. We really didn’t get that job. Our marriage failed. We really are getting old. Sickness and death will soon come for us. Why bother?
The fifth stage is acceptance. If we’re lucky, last long enough, and gain enough wisdom to arrive at this fifth and last stage, our hands unclench, our face softens, and we turn our attention away from what we’ve lost and toward the embarrassment of riches raining down around us. We suddenly see the whole wheel turning – the birthing, the living, the dying – as a beautiful river. Which part is the good part? The cloud? The rain? The mountain stream? The headwaters of the river, or the wide delta that merges into the sea? The cloud dies in the rain, the rain dies in the river, and the river dies in the sea, yet nature never grieves these changes. It knows that forms arise and fade, but the One from which all forms arise and to which all forms return is itself eternal and formless. Therefore emergence and dissolution is to be celebrated in all of its stages. Death is not wrong. It is not a mistake to be corrected. Why do we celebrate birth so joyfully and lament death so somberly? If we really understood the whole wheel, wouldn’t we honor birth and death equally?
In the face of loss the only sane stance is gratitude, and the mother of gratitude is acceptance. Instead of cursing the death of a loved one, we ought to be grateful they were ever born – especially in the case of a parent. I suppose it goes without saying, but if our parents hadn’t been born, we wouldn’t be having this whole grief problem. In other words, it is the very act of birth itself that ushers us into this terrible ordeal, this business of death, loss, and grieving. You can’t have one without the other. If you want to be born, then say hello to death. Life is death-defined.
This then is what it means to reach acceptance. We look the facts of living and dying in the face and we make peace with it, all of it. Sadly, many people die before they reach the stage of acceptance. They stay rooted in denial, anger, or depression. Sometimes those deleterious forces form the engine of their demise. Addiction, depression, suicide, and violent crime have many causes, but they clearly have roots in our inability to reach the acceptance stage. Prison is full of people who struggled to bring their inner lives into accord with the outer truths of existence. They gave into anger, rage, fear, addiction, and violence. Those outside of prison are not that different. We just haven’t been caught yet.
In some cosmic way it makes sense to say that each of us is responsible for our own inner lives. But claims like that are also cavalier and overlook the deep-tissue trauma that drives people to think and act like they do. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says that “we are driven to action by our own natures.” And our natures are impacted and molded by our environment. Our hunger, our thirst, our sexual drives, our longing for love, acceptance, belonging, and self-expression all play a part in the formation of our consciousness and the forging of our choices and actions. Still, underneath all of these tiers of influence I believe we are free. No matter what, in each now moment we have a choice. I choose to believe that. I have to believe that. We may be driven by our natures, but we are not determined by them.
When we choose community, when we say yes to the messiness of relationship, when we forgive ourselves and others and learn to see with the eyes of love, we are renewed and restored to the center of our own lives. We come home to the beauty of being alive. But no one can move through these stages for us. We must put one foot before the other. There is a way to live after the loss, and we must take it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What's Me and What's Maya?

[This piece first appeared in my column "A to Zen" in the September/October 2014 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.] 
       Most of the time, the illusion holds.
But once in a while, we catch a glimpse of our face in the mirror and honestly wonder, Who is that person looking back at me? Sure, we generally know who we are. We know our names. We remember our addresses. At work, we kind of know what to do. But on those dark nights of the soul when our very existence is called into question, the center around which all of the disparate elements of our lives orbit loses its gravitational pull. We see the parts, but can’t find the whole. The lights are on, but no one’s home.
The great 20th-century Indian spiritual teacher Ramana Maharshi used to ask his students to meditate on the question, “Who are you?” But the question often elicits a mere list of labels—a man, a woman, a husband, a wife, a parent, an athlete, an artist, an engineer. As spiritual archaeologists, we must somehow be able to dig down beneath these layers of social identity.
Knowing that real inquiry can begin only after removing all masks, Adyashanti and other contemporary teachers shift the question to “What are you?” Yet no matter how you word the query, the goal is the same—discernment. Learning to tell the difference between illusion and reality, between our myriad masks and our primal, authentic nature is the urgent task of every thinking man and woman. Without discernment, we remain forever trapped in an unexamined illusion.
When we are born, we fall immediately under the spell of the perceptual world and the inherent structures of consciousness. Our senses and our minds portray the boundless energy around us as discrete and solid objects, even though at the atomic level, so-called “solid matter” is 99.9999 percent empty space. Even our concept of self is haunted by this same vexing problem. We think we are separate. As a purely defensive move, our ego usurps control. Then fear puts us in competition with all of the other “separate” objects and entities that our addled mind concocts. Thinking itself, in other words, is the source of our confusion. The ancient Indians had a word for this shared communal delusion—maya.
Maya is the illusory nature of the perceptual field, including our surface consciousness, shaped as it is by this mistaken reading of the energy field around us. Caught in the dream of maya, we don’t see an essential truth—that we are at our core divine. Hinduism refers to this divine nature within us as Atman, or Self. The purpose of the many paths of yoga, in fact, is to see through this fog of maya that hangs between us and reality so that we can discover and realize our inner divinity. The process may seem impossible, yet there’s hope. There is a way across the ocean of this dreamworld. Discernment is our raft to the other shore.
When Unity cofounder Charles Fillmore and other New Thought leaders went looking for a way to transform the fire-and-brimstone Christianity of 19th-century America into an affirmative spiritual practice, they turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and the sacred literature of Hinduism for a new vocabulary with which to render the spiritual truths of their own experience. In an essay of the same name, Emerson renders the Atman as “Over-Soul,” the one, universal consciousness. When Fillmore writes of the Christ within, he is referring to this same spiritual principle.
Discernment then, it turns out, is the most important of all spiritual work. The pervasive, relentless tenacity of the illusion of ego-separation is the source of all our powerlessness, conflict, and suffering. Realizing the Christ within, our Buddha nature, our God consciousness, our Over-Soul, is a prize won only through an arduous and disciplined process of discerning truth from illusion. We are not our bodies. We are not our genes. We are not our cultural and environmental conditioning. We are shaped by those things, but not bound by them. We are more. We are one with the divine.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Amy Bolland (1926-2014) An Obituary

Amy Bolland died peacefully at home after a brief illness on June 30, 2014 at the age of 88. A memorial service will be held at 11:00 AM on Saturday, August 23, in the Santa Paula Room of the Poinsettia Pavilion, 3451 Foothill Road, Ventura, California 93003. She is survived by her three sons and daughters-in-law Eric and Patty Bolland, John and Lourana Bolland, and Peter and Lori Bolland, as well as numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Amy was born on February 11, 1926 in Haarlem, the Netherlands, the only daughter of Antonie and Christine van Niel. She was raised with her two older brothers in the difficult years of the Great Depression and World War II.
Amy got her artistic talent from her father who was a sculptor by trade, striving to support his family with a satchel of wood carving chisels and an eye for design. He produced work for private patrons, public commissions, and museum showings just as Amy would in her medium of clay.
Sharing many common interests, the van Niel and the Bolland families became good friends. Amy took a particular liking to a young, shy boy named Hilbert Bolland.
Childhood came to an abrupt end in 1940 when Germany invaded Holland. Amy was only 14. As the long, hard years of Nazi occupation dragged on, things grew increasingly bleak. Starvation, the humiliation of begging for food, and the menacing threat of death dogged their every step. In 1943, Hilbert was taken by the Nazis and shipped to Germany to work as forced labor in a print shop. Amy wondered if she would ever see him again.
When the war ended in 1945, Amy was 19. Soon Hilbert returned to Haarlem. Reunited, Amy and Hilbert looked toward the future with firm resolve to build a life out of the ruins around them. They were married in the Rosicrucian Temple in Haarlem in 1946. They had nothing. No one did in those years. Everyone was starting over.
When their first son Eric was born in 1948, it became increasingly clear that it was going to be challenging to raise a family in post-war Holland. The waiting list for an apartment was 14 years and sharing a home with her parents became difficult. They began to dream of America.
In 1950, they kissed their families goodbye and boarded a ship for the New York Harbor. Amy stood on the deck holding Hilbert’s hand as they watched their beloved Netherlands disappear over the horizon. She was 24 years old, had a two year old on her hip and was seven months pregnant.
Settling near Paterson, New Jersey, Amy gave birth to her second son John. Hilbert found work as a printer while Amy raised her two boys and began to learn English. Eight years later, her third son Peter was born.
In 1962, Hilbert, Amy, and the three boys loaded the Chevrolet station wagon, hitched the trailer, and drove across the country to California. When they got to Los Angeles they headed north, stopping for a break in the quiet coastal town of Ventura. As they stretched their legs in Plaza Park, Amy noticed the Star-Free Press newspaper building across the street. “Why don’t you go see if they need a type-setter,” she said. He came back a half hour later. “I start on Monday,” he said.
Later that year they bought a house on Clemson Street and planted an avocado tree in the backyard. Eric and John enrolled in junior high and Peter began kindergarten the following year. The Clemson Street house would be Amy’s home for the next 52 years. It was in that kitchen that she would prepare the family’s meals. It was in that den that she sewed for her dressmaking clients. It was in that garage studio that she mastered her artistic skills as an award-winning sculptor of clay busts. It was in that garden that she nurtured flowers and fruit trees under the California sun. It was on that dining room table that she and Hilbert had afternoon tea everyday when he came home from work. It was in those rooms that she dreamed her dreams, loved her husband, and raised her boys. And it was from that front porch that she waved goodbye to each of her sons as they drove off to college.
After their last son Peter left for college in 1978, the empty-nesters focused on traveling, community service, and the quiet life that love, health, and good fortune affords. Whether it was returning to Europe and the Netherlands to reconnect with their brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends, or crisscrossing America in their RV, Amy and Hilbert loved nothing more than learning everything they could about every place they visited and drinking in the endless beauty of the world. When they were home, Amy and Hilbert volunteered at the Ventura County Fair and the Dudley House Historical Museum. They took solace in the spirituality of nature, enjoying Sundays on the beach or taking in a Krishnamurti lecture under the oak trees at the Krotona Institute in Ojai. They lived in Ventura longer than anywhere else they had ever lived, and it was their home. They loved Ventura and wanted to give back in any way they could to the city that had given them so much.
In 2009, when Amy was 83, Hilbert was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The next years were difficult. In 2010 Hilbert was moved into a care facility where he could receive the kind of care Amy could no longer provide. She visited him constantly, but it was heartbreaking to live apart. When he finally passed away in 2012, she was truly alone for the first time after 66 years of marriage.
During her last years, Amy lived independently, drove her car, stayed active at church, and met regularly with friends for lunch and day trips. She loved her family very much, and was always checking in with everyone and staying connected as the grandchildren grew up and began having children of their own. To them she was Oma, the Dutch grandmother with the heavy accent and mischievous grin.
On June 19, 2014, Amy drove herself to the hospital, on her doctor’s advice, and checked herself in. She was experiencing jaundice symptoms and would require testing and treatment. Over the following week her condition worsened and after a number of procedures it became clear that it was time for hospice and palliative care.
On Saturday, June 28 Amy came home. A hospital bed was placed in the living room and 24 hour nursing care was established. The family gathered around. Surrounded by her father’s hand-carved furniture, her own sculpture, and with the light from her beautiful summer garden streaming in through the windows, Amy rested peacefully in the home she loved so well. She passed away quietly two days later.
            She had a long, wonderful life filled with love, beauty, creativity, challenge, and joy. She was deeply proud of her three sons and the lives they had crafted, and she was profoundly grateful for her long and loving marriage to the only man she ever loved, Hilbert. There was nothing that she wanted to achieve that she had not achieved. She had reached the goal so many long for and so few attain – she was happy. She trusted that the best would always win out, and passed that trust on to her sons. She is remembered lovingly as the lion-hearted matriarch who survived hardship and war to boldly journey around the world to make a better life for herself and her family. All who knew her, all who love her, all who survive her are grateful for her strength, generosity, and vision. Her character and love will continue to shape us in innumerable ways for the rest of our lives.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

My Mom

The hospital bed took up most of the living room. The steady hum of the oxygen machine masked the murmuring voices from the other room. Light from the summer garden poured through the windows. I took her head in my hands and kissed her forehead. She was drifting in and out. I kissed both of her cheeks. The smell of her warm skin broke my heart. It wasn’t going to be long. I told her I loved her and thanked her for being my mom. Her eyes opened and in a flash of recognition she smiled. For a moment we were together again, mother and son. The room fell away. We were young, happy, free, and eternal, beyond the grip of terrible time. Then her face softened, her eyes closed, and she drifted back into a dream. She died the following evening. She was 88 years old.
When my father died two years ago I knew what to do. I grieved, and I got back to work. I didn’t fall apart. I had my mom to think about. My brothers and I focused on her. There was a sense of relief at his passing because Alzheimer’s is a pitiless bully – death by a thousand cuts. The night he died it felt like a weight was lifted off of us. Now he was free from the betrayal of his brain and body.
But this was different.
My mom was diagnosed and eleven days later was gone. And now the home we all grew up in is empty. No one lives there anymore. It’s just a place we’re from.
The death of a loved one comes in waves – the initial, irreversible news, then the disbelief. You forget and remember and forget over and over again. It takes time for your brain to catch up with the truth. A holiday comes and you reach for the phone to call them. A scrap of paper brushes your hand in a drawer releasing a flood of memories. The smell of celery or the sound of a spoon stirring a cup of tea and bam, your throat catches and you excuse yourself to cry in another room. The wound stays fresh for a long, long time. You tell everyone you’re alright, but you aren’t.
In times like these you go back and sift through memories. You wish you had more. You can’t believe how much is gone. And the little that’s left takes on the burnished glow of treasure.
We lived a few blocks from my elementary school and sometimes I’d walk home for lunch. A cheese sandwich, maybe curried fried rice (my favorite), with Sheriff John on TV if she was in a good mood.
Always sewing. The crinkle of thin paper dress patterns from Vogue, Simplicity, and McCalls pined to large swaths of fabric on the dining room table. Her bending over and carefully cutting the cloth with special scissors I was never allowed to use. The sound of a sewing machine from the other room while I played with my toys on the floor. The clients who came by for a fitting.
The whine of my dad’s Honda 50 coming down the street right after I got home from school. Him coming through the door, the whole energy of the house shifting. They were always happier together than apart. My mom and dad having tea, talking in low tones about the mysterious things married people talk about.
The smell of dinner. Mom showing me how to cut up a cauliflower, core a cabbage, or mince onions. Stirring a pot of tomato soup. How to make roux and béchamel for the turnips. The darkening sky outside. The ritual of food and fire and the family table.
My two brothers were eight and ten years older so it was usually just me and my mom. She’d take me everywhere – grocery shopping, the department store, and in the early years before we got our own washer and dryer, the laundromat. She’d let me put the dimes in the slots. She showed me the right way to fold a shirt. She understood these things, and they seemed important, so I paid attention.
My mother was fearless in a way that I was not. I was passive, withdrawn, and contemplative. She had to muster assertiveness for two.
She made me take piano lessons. I was not consulted. It was mildly amusing at first, and then it got difficult. My weeks were filled with dread knowing that the next piano lesson was coming and I had not yet perfected this week’s scales. Sometimes the pressure motivated me to work harder. Other times it drained me of resolve and I resigned myself to my piano teacher’s withering glance and disappointed sigh. Outwardly I conformed as best I could, but inwardly I had some serious questions about the adult world. Why were they always taking on difficult tasks and setting themselves up for failure? Why didn’t they just sit back and enjoy life as it was? Why were they always trying to change and grow and learn and create?
Then it happened. My fingers obeyed. I heard music where once there was only embarrassment and inadequacy. And I realized I was doing it – those were my fingers making the music, my hands, my arms, my mind, my heart, and I was overwhelmed by all the possibilities that unfolded from this realization. I suddenly understood that I was unlimited, that I was capable of anything, and that discipline, will, and conviction nurture and cultivate the seeds within us. We do not become who we really are until we struggle up through the soil of our indifference, our sloth, our fear of failure. On the other side of the pain is an unspeakable beauty, a beauty unobtainable by those who love only comfort, only easy, only staying the same.
My mom got me a surfboard and wetsuit and drove me to the beach. She knew her introspective, day dreaming son needed an adventure. My friends and I loved the beach, but surfing was a quantum leap away from the Styrofoam belly boards and inflatable rafts we rode as boys on those long summer afternoons. Surfing is what men did. Out in deep water. And with her encouragement I began. Surfing became the center of my life throughout my teens and twenties. I learned a lot on the water. But mostly, again, I learned that fear is an obstacle to joy. Once I made the ocean my friend and learned to navigate, even celebrate her powers, my fear lifted and all that remained was beauty. The ocean taught me that it was safe to fall in love. Even with all of the tumbles and breathless disorientation, you always come up for air. And under the wide California sky you know that you are home wherever you are, and that everything always changes, and people die, but the big show never ends. Again and again we are affirmed in our love. The ocean never leaves us. And the final revelation – we are loved only as much as we surrender to it. Love is not controlled or calculated. There are no pro and con lists. There is only acceptance and surrender.
My mom brought me into the world. But that was only half of it. More importantly, she taught me how to live in it. I miss her, even though she’s right here in every cell of my body, in my discipline, my courage, and my creativity. Her living room is empty now, but she lives in the fullness of all the lives she shaped.