Thursday, June 30, 2016

Big Sur

            Big Sur is impossible. It should not exist. But there it is.
            A crazy road clinging to the cliffs between San Simeon and Carmel. Lapis lazuli waters with sea otters at play. Grey fox pups peering up through the poppies. High above, California condors, back from the brink of extinction, set their ten foot wingspans like sails on the salty updraft. Far below, the plumes of Blue whales spout like geysers.
            Highway 1 was built through these treacherous coastal gorges by convict labor in the years after World War I. It was a simple deal – in exchange for a day on the road crew they cut a day off your sentence. That one misstep could send you pummeling down a thousand foot cliff to your death was better odds than another day in the exercise yard at San Quentin.
The army needed access to the coast to create a frontline defense on the western edge of the country. So congressional funding appeared. War is funny like that. It creates both a sense of urgency and unintended consequences. Were it not for the fear of invasion by sea on this lonely stretch of unprotected west coast, the Big Sur Highway would have never been built. What would have all those peace-loving hippies at Esalen done then?
            The central coast of California has its own personality, its own soul, and its own undefinable borders. Some say central California is everything north of Santa Barbara and south of Monterrey. Others push the southern edge down to Ventura and the northern edge up to San Francisco. But one thing is sure. There is nothing like it anywhere else in the world.
            Southern California has heat, beach culture, Hollywood, and street tacos. Northern California has coastal redwoods, fog, and rutting Roosevelt Elk bugling on the slopes of volcanos. Central California is more difficult to define.
Beginning in the east, the White Mountains run along the Nevada border, home to the Bristlecone pine, the oldest living thing on earth. Moving west you come to the Owens Valley leaping up into the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, crowned by the tallest peak in the continental United States, Mt. Whitney at 14, 505 feet. Called by John Muir “the Range of Light,” the Sierra Nevada Mountains boast both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. That fact alone establishes Central California’s dominance among the three Californias.
            Descending through the foothills of the western Sierras you come upon the Central Valley, an agricultural wonderland that feeds not only the United States, but much of the world. Sure the 1848 Gold Rush, also a central California phenomenon, was impressive, but the real gold comes in the form of peaches, almonds, raisins, and basically everything you could possibly put in a salad, and then some.
            Traveling further west across the coastal ranges you come to Big Sur where the forested crags of the Santa Lucia Mountains tower over the Pacific and cold, clear, mountain streams plunge off of cliffs into azure bays brimming with sea life.
            Once the road was built in the 1920s and 1930s settlers began trickling in, building patchwork homesteads in sheltered, forested valleys perched high above the sea.  Big Sur has always attracted artists, poets, hermits, and other refugees from Middle America looking for something more intrepid, more mystical, and more vibrant than the altogether respectable but underwhelming goal of having a sensible career and your own washer and dryer. At Big Sur, you hardly even need clothes. Let alone a tie.
            So what is it about California, central coastal California especially, that calls out to lost souls all over the world? Why do they come to Big Sur in droves just to drive this remote, dizzying highway and stare bedazzled at the jeweled Pacific curving toward infinity? Some places take on a mythical stature, a sacred sense of place far surpassing any fortunate confluence of geological features or natural beauty. Sure, Big Sur has all of that. But it has more, that quality the French call je ne sais quoi, or I know not what. You can’t put your finger on it, but Big Sur has it: a palpable spirit, an aliveness, a soul, a something you just can’t define.
            When places take on a mythical quality, they become a living, breathing, conscious being. Science, of course, laughs at talk like that. In the western scientific paradigm nature is not a spiritual presence, it is a collection of objects; observable, quantifiable, and explainable with a series of linear analytical propositions. The Salinan and Esselen peoples who originally inhabited this region for 10,000 years before the Conquest didn’t quite see it that way.
            For Native peoples, an alternative epistemology holds sway. They see the realm of nature not as a field of disconnected objects, but as an interconnected web – pull one thread, and you touch it all. From this perspective, it doesn’t make sense to talk about plants in the abstract, but only about this plant, in this soil, in this valley, in this weather, on this day, near this stream, in this season, in relationship with these birds, rodents, snakes, and insects…and now us as we observe it, for we too are an inseparable part of the whole. As John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” There is no meaningful and ultimate distinction between the observer and observed. In deep seeing, we become both invisible and indivisible. There is only one. We, in the end, are the universe observing itself.
            That’s what makes a sacred place sacred: the hidden interconnectedness shines through the surface and reveals itself. Once we see it, or rather, feel it, we carry this expanded awareness everywhere we go, returning home with new eyes. And then we realize the real truth, the truth that was staring us in the face the whole time, only we did not see it. Every place is a sacred place.
            If any place is sacred, every place is sacred.
            When we spring to life somewhere, we spring to life everywhere.
            This is the value and vital importance of travel, especially pilgrimages to extraordinary places like Big Sur. Standing on a bluff, the sun on your back, held fast by the curving arms of a cedar, you experience an interchange: through every pore of your skin you feel your spirit and the earth’s spirit pouring into one another, the way a freshwater stream and the Pacific Ocean pour into one another in the estuary of a Big Sur beach. No more struggle, no more strain, because you are part of something bigger than yourself and you always have been. You don’t do anything alone. How could you? That was an illusion. One of the many, many illusions stripped away by the willingness to realize your authentic nature.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Rock of Sisyphus

Sisyphus led a treacherous, murderous life, and he was rightly punished for it. Zeus sentenced Sisyphus to an eternity of pushing a rock up a hill – only it was an enchanted rock, and every time Sisyphus reached the summit it would roll away and tumble back down to the bottom.

       Sisyphus would begin again. But he never complained. He accepted his fate. In fact, he more than accepted it – he embraced it.

       In his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus finds something heroic in Sisyphus’s resignation. No one would blame Sisyphus for giving up and muttering, “Why bother?” But he doesn’t. In spite of the apparent meaninglessness of his task, Sisyphus’s resilience imposes meaning. Life is absurd says Camus, yet we get up every day and do it again anyway. And it is from our struggle that meaning comes.

       We do the laundry even though our clothes will just get dirty again. We empty the trash knowing it will fill back up. We put gas in the car even though it will be soon be empty. We go to work and have the same conversations about the same subjects with the same people, drink the same coffee, tackle the same challenges, face the same absurdities, and watch helplessly as the inbox grows faster than the outbox no matter how hard we push.

       It’s never finished. We’re never done. There is no such thing as the end of the road.

       Sisyphus reminds us of the cyclical nature of our work. Life is not linear – it spirals into the future in a series of concentric arcs. Here it is Tuesday again, here it is lunch again, here I am washing my bowl again. Déjà vu is simply the recognition of this fact: we have been here before, many times.

       In the face of this repetition we might be forgiven for slipping into despair. “What’s the point,” we might mutter in our more melancholic moments. But despair isn’t inevitable. In fact, maudlin resistance to the apparent absurdity of life is, when you come right down to it, a pretty lousy read. In Camus’s final analysis, the world is neither absurd nor not-absurd – it is indeterminate. It is left for us to decide. Only we can carve the shape of our own meaning. That is why Sisyphus is such a hero to Camus. It doesn’t get any more meaningless than pushing a rock up a hill. The rock doesn’t do anything, it isn’t for anything, and it’s just as useless at the top of the hill as at the bottom. Yet we must see Sisyphus as triumphant.  

       Like Sisyphus, we have the power to turn our fate into a blessing. We cannot change the past, nor most of the conditions around us, but we can always choose new thoughts about those events and circumstances. In the boundlessness of consciousness, we are radically free to impose meaning onto the absurdity of life. It is only from our willful commitment and decisive action that meaning emerges. Life is not a fantasy – it’s an activity. When we come out of our head and into our body, life springs from every pore. When you throw your shoulder into the rock and push, the meaninglessness of the world disappears like a bad dream in the light of day. 

        When we perform our duty, says Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, we participate in the divine play through which the whole universe comes into being. Of course we never accurately assess the value and scope of our work. How could we? We cannot see all the ripples that emanate from every intention, every gesture, every word, and every action. We must simply trust that we are enough. What else can we do? We are only one man, one woman. There is quiet heroism in facing every challenge nobly, and in playing our part in the great unfolding. Despite how it feels in our worst moments, everything matters. There are no small parts, only small actors.

[This piece was first published in my "A to Zen" column in the July/August 2016 edition of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here by permission.]  

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Wild and Precious Life

“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
                                                                        ~ Mary Oliver, The Summer Day

It is the sacred task of poets, songwriters, and artists of all stripes to awaken us to our own magnificence. They plumb our depths and announce the ugly impotence of our fear. They celebrate our breathtaking bravery in the face of certain annihilation. They illuminate the beauty of the world with light drawn from the funeral pyre of our grieving. They shadow us as we carry out our appointed tasks and pop up suddenly through the cracks of our inattention. They inspire us on the climb and balm our wounds. Artists use images normally consigned to dreams and bathe the waking world with their strangeness, eliciting melancholy, memory, hope, breathless longing, and wild aspiration. Were it not for the lifting power of art we would bog down in the minutiae of our pedestrian duties, little more than cogs in the machines we have made. Art saves. Art awakens the grandeur of our significance. Art gives us a reason to go on.        
 And it does it by asking all the right questions.
            Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
            Not everything is possible. We don’t have forever. Most of the elements of life are handed to us. We didn’t ask for most of this. We did not choose our race, ethnicity, or national origin. We did not choose our parents or brothers and sisters. We did not choose the century we were born in. We did not choose our gender or sexual orientation. We did not choose the shape or height of our bodies, nor our hair and eye color. We did not choose the economic class of our family of origin. We did not choose the city, state, neighborhood, or house we grew up in. We did not choose the other kids in our neighborhood and in our classrooms, the kids that would become the change agents in our lives, the kids that would spark our interest in music, or books, or baseball, or drugs, or surfing, or camping, or crime. We did not choose our genetic proclivities for introversion or extroversion or a hundred other traits. All of these choices were made for us. But within this rich tapestry of context we still had free will and an infinite array of options before us. We don’t control the weather, other people, or the past. But we’re radically free to choose our thoughts, words, actions, and attitudes. And now that many of us are all grown up, with fewer years ahead than behind us, we see as clear as glass that our own choices had a bigger impact on our life than all of the given conditions in which that freedom played out.
            The bracing and inspiring heroism of the human experience is the capacity to wrest freedom from the fate we are handed. To wallow in the tired and false dilemma – is life meaningless or meaningful? – is to miss the point entirely. Life is neither meaningful nor meaningless. It is we who impose meaning on the phenomenal realm by the heft of our choices. Like sea mist rising from a jagged shoreline, meaning arises from the vigor of our engagement with the travails of our lives.           
In another poem Mary Oliver asks a different question: “Are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” It is an accusation. It is a question meant to catch us unaware, and nearly shame us into real self-examination. It’s pretty in your face. Artists are like that.
            The good news is that there’s plenty of inspiration lying at our feet, at our fingertips, within earshot, and hidden in plain sight. The more we struggle with real questions, the clearer it becomes. The jewel of the world is polished by our suffering, burnished by our longing, and laid bare by our awkward flailing. All around us are clues to the infinite value of the nameless mystery. When we see with eyes made new by an open heart we see a world worthy of love. Confusion gives way to clarity. Woundedness gives way to healing. Paralysis and ennui give way to fluid fascination. We begin moving in the direction in which we are called, not sure of every step, but filled with an unearned conviction that all of this suddenly matters, and much more than we ever thought before. In our sleep everything was blanketed with the fog of unconsciousness. But as we awaken, the whole world awakens with us.
            Our boredom, our restlessness, our dissatisfaction – these are a call to action. They impel us to take risks we previously and studiously avoided. I don’t know what we were afraid of, or what we were protecting, but our suffering drives us onward. We don’t fully know the dangers that lay ahead, but they can’t be any worse than this sadness, this frustration, and this fear that we’re wasting our lives. Eventually the conviction arises that what lies ahead is worth the risk. Soon we viscerally and completely understand the words of Joseph Campbell when he wrote, “The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.” We learn to take risks and leap where prudence counsels us to wait and hold back. The darkness of the unknown, the fear of failure, and the threat of annihilation are no match for the joy that draws us forth. “Find the place inside you where there’s joy, and the joy will burn out the pain,” wrote Campbell. And he’s right. Our joy is always brighter, stronger, surer, and more real than any so-called obstacle. Joy trumps fear and pain every time.
            Looking back we see that our blunders and weakest moments were signposts that showed us how to navigate the path ahead. As Campbell wrote, “Where you stumble, there lie your treasures.” Without our failures we would have utterly lost our way.
            Too many times we got it wrong. We misread our mistakes. We misread our fears. We ran from both ashamed, leaving unredeemed treasures scattered on the road behind us. It’s time to get it right. It’s time to let our loving show us the way toward our own best life. It’s time to stop crawling along on our bellies, apologizing for being alive, worrying about what other people will think. Let them go. They have their own roads, their own standards, their own struggles. Life is wild and precious, as Mary Oliver wrote, and a treasure too valuable to squander on fear and misgivings. There is a meadow or a field or a forest or a seashore right outside your door – go there and listen. Really listen. Sit on the ground and wait. Let the flight of birds and the paths of clouds point the way. Let the wind through the trees be a song of your unfolding. And in the stillness hear your own heart asking you to finally, firmly, and lovingly claim your place in the heartbreaking beauty of the world.