Monday, October 16, 2017

nag, nag, nag

Again yesterday, the nag came nagging and I set out to reflect on what so much effort had been all about -- spiritual life. I guess, in the end, it doesn't matter much what field of endeavor anyone chooses as long as s/he 'goes the distance' -- i.e. digs in long enough and far enough so that, in the end, enough is enough.

I haven't really satisfied my own curiosities, so I keep writing this over and over. "Goes the distance," but what is THE distance? People like me get old and fat and lazy and, hey!, how long can you expect satisfaction when picking your nose? Death and sleep beckon -- isn't it time to leave things to their own devices? I suppose there are those who cling more tightly still to a given spiritual persuasion as age encroaches, but that strikes me as the wrong tack. Let God worship God, assuming God-stuff is your inclination. Stop fussing. Time used is seldom time wasted so ... let things alone.

Anyway ... here is yesterday's effort-manqué ... for the file-box, I guess. "If only..." is a young man's sport and looking back, I don't think I made a mistake ... or made a mistake exactly. All bullshit is good bullshit and yet is simultaneously bullshit as well.


I don't want to get into a kerfuffel with some clipped-lip Brit, but after 50 years of sometimes intense immersion in spiritual life I honestly wonder whether all those years were worth the price of admission.

A psychologist friend of mine, an ex-Jesuit who quit the Roman Catholic priesthood, once pointed out that no baby ever slid down the maternal chute burdened with belief. "Babies only know how to suck. End of story."

The anti-religious crowd may whoop and applaud the observation, but they are too often immured in their own belief system, and too seldom make room for the frailty like my own -- the need to believe in something bigger than a bread box.

Fifty years ... settling at last on Zen Buddhism as a vehicle. Today, at 77, I look back with delight on the fact that at the monastery I flunked out of there were valuable lessons to be learned and chief among them was that it is possible to eat oatmeal with chop sticks. More seriously -- by which I do not mean solemnly -- there is the approach of death and the question, "Of what importance is 50 years of failure and success? In death, won't it  dissipate like a film played in reverse ... back up the maternal chute perhaps into ... into ... into ... will someone please tell me into what."

You might think that death would create a capstone to all that study, all that intensive, meditative effort, all that reading that never quite managed to answer the question, "If I'm so smart, how come I'm not happy?" Isn't spiritual life largely a relaxing response to the unknown that is called death? Believers and non-believers smile knowingly, but what the hell do they know?

It all started easily enough when I was about 35, the sole offspring of a college professor whose own father had been a Presbyterian minister, and a very good writer of fiction and non-fiction. Both relied, with differing amounts of courage, on the religion of the intellect. Any child who has been subjected to the catechisms of intellectual life may sympathize with the child who seeks out love in the above-and-beyond-it-all.

As I dipped my toe in the spiritual waters and determined I wanted to get wet, I had a couple of provisos: 1. I wanted to find out if spiritual life were verifiable but not in order to convince or convert anyone else. In terms that suited my leanings I wanted to know, "Is it bullsh*t or not?" and 2. if my spiritual adventures could not step up to the clamor of a raucous beer hall, it was useless. Outside of that, I was willing to dive.

I read. I did the ecumenical schtick. I tried, unsuccessfully, to stop cussing. Hinduism was lovely, not least because its age gave it the capacity for laughter. But its ornamentation outstripped my capacity to love bright lights. The Abrahamic persuasions -- Judaism, Islam, Christianity -- were top-heavy with the separation of man and god and hence riddled with unspoken doubt and I wasn't after what ladled out more doubt.

My first entry onto a zendo or Zen meditation hall, scared the hell out of me. Forty or fifty people sat facing a wall. They didn't move. They didn't speak. They didn't rely on each other in socially-recognizable ways. They sat still and, at the sound of a bell, they got up and walked. Then they sat down again. End of story. Yes, it scared me to death and yet somehow felt right. Put up and shut up.

I wasn't wrong. Which is not to say I was necessarily right.

The first nine years were full of hope and belief. Hope and belief inspire, but as a teacher would later tell me, "For the first four or five years (of meditation practice), belief and hope are necessary. After that, they are not so necessary."

Experience trumps hope and belief. All anyone has to do to verify this is to sneeze. Where do belief and hope go in the midst of a sneeze? What is left?

Fifty years of sometimes-zealous, sometimes-laggard practice and now I wonder, where does the accumulated experience go when the film is reversed? Heaven? Get a life! Hell? Get a life! Enlightenment? Get a life!

I practiced through times of bright openings and rock-solid sorrows. I kept on and kept on and kept on. But now is a time to consider the possibility of not-keeping-on. The understandings came and went in full accordance with Buddhism's observation or fact-checker that "everything changes."

The years rolled by. I got married. Three kids came down the chute. We moved out of New York City an into Massachusetts. I built my own zendo in the backyard and invited others to come and sit. Few did. I put spaghetti on the table as a 'copy editor' at a nearby newspaper. It was dreary work. Every Sunday, I would get into my robe and go out to the zendo to sit for an hour or two.

The same priest-turned-psychologist I knew once told me when I asked about his own post-exit approach to spiritual life, "I have done with the eternal."

With death on the doorstep, how and why should I complain or fret? When I was a kid, I had an array of cap pistols with which to play cowboys-and-Indians. Racism on that front had yet to raise its apt objections. But today, not a single cap pistol remains. As I have a soft spot for children's games, so I have a soft spot for people seeking an easier way of life, something less tear-stained and full of doubt. Spiritual life is a possible approach.

It's bullsh*t of course, but life is full of bullsh*t that helps the flowers grow. Stinky, but rich. I have a soft spot, but not soft enough to remain silent about the bullsh*t. I might have stuck with cap pistols as a focal interest but, well, it's too late now.

The cap pistols of my heart.


  1. The Kalama sutra pretty much said to sit as buddha sat and see for yourself. Sitting gave me an appreciation for the metta sutra and made the heart sutra relatable. After that I don't know anything. Between birth and death we keep pretty busy with yearning and fear whether engaged or distracted.

    Most of my life I thought music was the most important thing and spent quite a lot of time and effort on it. Then one day, being part of a good band with much promise, some offers from labels, I just suddenly was over it. I enjoy listening and have fond memories, but it's not important.

    In a book called Conversations With Merlin by Frown Strong, he says it is not the man who creates, but what is out of balance in the man. So maybe I achieved balance? Went the distance? Maybe I discovered it wasn't filling my cup? I don't know. It just changed. Buddha said that sometimes happens.

    Having gone from baptist to pagan to buddhist, sorta, all things were lumped under spiritual, which is somehow metaphysical, which is somehow lacking in evidence and importance. I was told along the way that I can't fall out of the universe, and that seemed to handle all of my metaphysical/spiritual needs.

    Maybe you just have to go your own distance, far enough to have an impact on yourself.

  2. I second many of olcharlie’s sentiments and add the following.

    I have heard and read about the notion of writing as a spiritual practice. Sometimes it’s journaling as a spiritual practice. I’ve added a quote below from a proponent of this idea. Google will find you many who hold this notion.

    In my own case, I have been trying to find some truly essential components of spiritual practice in both form and substance.

    Assuming that your form is writing, I’d say that if writing makes you happy, and it’s done consistently (for sure), and it’s given the period it takes to burn an incense stick 20 - 50 minutes, it probably qualifies. A major component of “Spiritual Practice” is, in the end, something done over a long period of time.

    The quote:
    “Writing can be a spiritual practice. To write about what is painful is to begin the work of healing. To write the red of a tomato before it is mixed into beans for chili is a form of praise. To write an image of a child caught in war is confession or petition or requiem. To write grief onto a page of lined paper until tears blur the ink is often the surest access to giving or receiving forgiveness. To write a comic scene is grace and beatitude. To write irony is to seek justice. To write admission of failure is humility. To be in an attitude of praise or thanksgiving, to rage against God, or to open one’s inner self and listen, is prayer. To write tragedy and allow comedy to arise between the lines is miracle and revelation.”
    “How The Light Gets In: Writing as a Spiritual Practice”
    By Pat Schneider
    © 2013
    Oxford University Press
    ISBN-13: 978-0199933983 ISBN-10: 0199933987 Edition: 1st

    Pat Schneideris founderof Amherst Writers & Artists and the author of 10 works of poetry and nonfiction, including Writing Alone and With Others. Founder of Amherst Writers & Artists, she travels frequently to teach and has been leading workshops in creative writing at the Pacific School of Religion for almost 30 years. Garrison Keillor has read her poems 16 times on "Writers Almanac."