Christmas in October

As I write this, I am struggling to get a good fire going in the woodstove.  We are in the middle of a freak October snow storm—the third freak storm since August—and we have no lights, no heat, and no running water since we depend on a well. A few months ago, during Hurricane Irene, I wrote about tending the stove and feeling a connection to my ancestors.  In the midst of this particular massive and record-breaking storm (there are getting to be so many we have to distinguish), I am feeling a particular connection to my ancestors who lived in very cold climates (I’m washing dishes in snow!)  How hearty they had to be.  It takes an enormous act of will to get up in a cold, dark house and light a fire.  Yet, as I kneel here shivering , I am also thinking of those who are younger than I am.  I am wondering if they will wonder why in the name of all that is good the deeper cause of this wild weather didn’t quite sink in last time.   I’m talking about what the Buddhists call the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion.

By firelight and flashlight, or in my bedroom under about nine blankets, I am reading and reflecting on a teaching of the Buddha called the “Fire Sermon,” translated from Pali, the earliest Buddhist language,  by the Buddhist scholar monk Venerable Bhikkhu Bodhi.   For a future issue of Parabola  called “Burning World,” he adds a brilliant commentary.  In plain language, the Buddha talks about the way life goes—that everything  human is burning or impermanent, all our impressions and feelings and our life itself, all fleeting.   Yet, as Ven. Bodhi points out, on top of this natural burning, there is the “parasitic”  burning of greed or grasping, hatred or aversion to people and things we don’t like, and delusion or the denial of what is really happening.  These are natural tendencies in all of us, and most of us do our best to overcome them through meditation, prayer, or sheer live-and-learn common sense.   Yet, we now live in an age where we aren’t just impacted by greed, hatred, and delusion on a personal or local level.  There are vast systems fueled by greed, hatred, and delusion—and those systems effect all us, in the economy, in climate change.

Huddling by the woodstove, I suddenly realize that as much as I may want to I really can’t separate myself from the global situation.   But I bring good news.   Having the power cut off has a way of drawing out the power of kindness and generosity.    In the midst of dramatic news reporters talking about what was happening being beyond anything in recorded history and the millions without power in our region, individuals and groups quietly set about helping their neighbor.  The Salvation Army set up a warming station in the local Middle School.  My neighbor came over and told us about it and over we went to charge phones and laptop.  It was incredibly warming illuminating, watching the look on peoples’ faces as they entered and saw tables set out with food and big vats of coffee.  I live in a middle class pocket of a generally very affluent area, and it was especially touching to see people coming in who looked just astonished to see smiling Salvation Army and other volunteers there offering not just basic necessities like food and army cots and blankets but smiles.   For a time, the gym looked like an old time town square, kids watching movies on lap tops, groups of old people talking.  It made me realize how wonderful it would be, to have more community life, not just Manhattan and rushing home to your own house.

But the real food for thought came with simple individual acts of generosity.  My neighbor Keith, who was getting up at 4:30 to start a fire for his family before heading for his job in the city, came over after dark to see if we needed water.  He was headed to the fire station where there was a hose for everybody’s use.  I remembered what our ancestors knew, that survival depends on cooperation.  And not just practical cooperation—but offering a smile and a laugh, fellowship.  Love your neighbor, do unto others as you would have them do unto you–or don’t do what you would you would not have done—however you frame it, I learned that this is a very profound and spiritually developed way to live.

In his commentary on the Fire Sermon, Ven. Bodhi  offers that our culture has to shift our notion of success, away from the achievement of more and more wealth, power, and domination, to the actualization of truth, goodness, and beauty.   When the lights and heat went off, I realized that this shift really is possible in the moment—and there is a great deal of good will and generosity out there that just seems to flower when it is needed. I had five long cold, dark days to reflect on what is really essential to a good life, and what is not.  I feel a little bit like Scrooge on Christmas morning, resolved to live by different lights (not that I ever did amass wealth or fame.   I realized that I the direction I want to move in is out of separation into no separation.  Now how do I remember this when the lights and the heat come back on.

7 thoughts on “Christmas in October

  1. Hi Tracey,

    Maybe one answer to that question is to “swing that door” both ways every day by attentively meditating on the Buddha’s three marks of existence. In other words make those three marks real in your everyday life with that attention and outcomes start to happen less and less out of momentum.

  2. Hi Falk, This sounds right, and every experience can swing inward and outward–revealing (or potentially revealing) the truth of impermanence, the nature of suffering, and what is real and just illusion and vanity and clinging about our notion of self. There is a way of opening up to whatever is happening–whether it is a power outage in cold weather or the perfect meal with the perfect someone–allowing it to unfold without insisting it be otherwise. Paying close attention without denial or aversion to any aspect, without yearning for something to be added or removed–allowing the experience to unfold and us along with it–this does stop the usual momentum. How can we remember to try this? Lately, it occurs to me that consciously setting an intention helps.

  3. Hi Tracy

    I thought I’d add some ideas pertaining to this question of separation or non separation.

    To whom do we belong? This is the core question of the spiritual life. Do we belong to the world, its worries, its people and its endless chain of urgencies and emergencies, or do we belong to God and God’s people? This question is not too difficult to answer. Our milieu – the persons and events we talk and agonize about, rejoice in and give thanks for – reveals to whom most of us belong. The tragedy is that for most of us this milieu is far from the Divine milieu.” Henri Nouwen

    Water seeks its own level. External events effect our psych making it appear better or worse but like waves, have a level from which they rise and fall. IMO we have to come to know our level and how it is determined rather than identify with the waves.

    According to Simone Weil, the supreme idol is the Social Beast described in the Republic of Plato and in the Book of Revelation by St. John. The Social Beast fills the need for God when God appears absent. In Weil’s language, idols result from willing the truth rather than attending to the truth:

    Idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we have not the patience to allow it to develop.

    You wrote ” I realized that I the direction I want to move in is out of separation into no separation.” But belonging to the Beast assures being part of its diverse nature regardless of altruistic intentions. Being part of the Beast assures that as we are, our chief motive is for prestige so consequently humanity can become simultaneously capable of either compassion of atrocities depending upon external circumstances.

    “Humanism was not wrong in thinking that truth, beauty, liberty, and equality are of infinite value, but in thinking that man can get them for himself without grace.” Simone Weil

    If she is right, the “three poisons” of greed, hatred, and delusion” will surface depending upon external circumstances. Without a society creating a metaxu (environment) that furthers acquiring the power of conscious attention and opening to grace necessary for acquiring and sustaining a higher more human perspective, The dominance of the need for prestige acquired through power and force assures the societal cycles including war and peace will remain. It is quite obvious that American culture and its enchantment with technology and self importance prefers imagination to conscious attention and denies grace. Its freedom must be lost to compensate for the sacrifice of what is necessary for a cultural striving towards a conscious human perspective.

    Do I belong to the Beast or do I have an attraction to a quality of individuality threatening to the Beast? I have to admit I prefer separation to no separation. But not being a part of it is not to deny responsibility.

    Simone Weil wrote in “Waiting for God” concerning the parable of the Good Samaritan:

    “Christ taught us that the supernatural love of our neighbor is the exchange of compassion and gratitude which happens in a flash between two beings, one possessing and the other deprived of human personality. One of the two is only a little piece of flesh, naked, inert, and bleeding beside a ditch; he is nameless; no one knows anything about him. Those who pass by this thing scarcely notice it, and a few minutes afterwards do not even know that they saw it. Only one stops and turns his attention towards it …. The attention is creative. But at the moment when it is engaged it is a renunciation. This is true, at least, if it is pure. The man accepts to be diminished by concentrating on an expenditure of energy, which will not extend his own power but will only give existence to a being other than himself, who will exist independently of him …. Creative attention means really giving our attention to what does not exist… He who has absolutely no belongings of any kind around which social consideration crystallizes does not exist.”

    I don’t believe I could be capable of this without both conscious attention and the help of grace requiring a certain separation from the attractions of the Beast.

    1. Hi Nick, Simone is very penetrating, isn’t she? What I think of as non-separation is being open. I’ve heard the Buddhist state of emptiness equated with openess–and with being open or available to God’s grace. The passage you share about attention being an act of renunciation resonates with this. We need to create an empty or open space so the unknown aspects of ourselves and others–“he who has absolutely no belongings of any kind around which social consideration crystallizes”–can unfold and reveal themselves to us. I think these moments can come to us, and do.

      I don’t think my view is as dire as yours,, though. I think these moments of opening can appear in the midst of ordinary life. And I see through the drive for prestige, and more and more.

  4. I agree that they can Tracy. I was trying to make the distinction between the value of a group mind in contrast to the individual. Gurdjieff’s grandmother has inspired me to ponder this:

    “Eldest of my grandson’s! Listen and always remember my strict injunction to you: In life never do as others do.”… “Either do nothing — just go to school — or do something nobody else does.” Gurdjieff’s Grandmother

    The best we are normally capable of is a healthy group mind: “the Good Householder.” However in these times especially we need “Individuals” Without their influence my gut feeling is that we are doomed. Individuality is not restricted to the healthy group mind but is called to something that transcends it and, in a sense, protects it.

    Simone was a pure Individual dedicated to the open experience of truth which is why I agree with Thomas Merton as to her importance. This is why I encourage individuality rather than collective imagination for those capable of it. We need their influence in the pursuit of becoming more human.

    “Simone Weil and Thomas Merton were born in France 6 years apart – 1909 and 1915 respectively. Weil died shortly after Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemani. It is unclear whether Weil knew of Merton, but Merton records being asked to review a biography of Weil (Simone Weil: A Fellowship in Love, Jacques Chabaud, 1964) and was challenged and inspired by her writing. “Her non-conformism and mysticism are essential elements in our time and without her contribution we remain not human.”

    1. What an extraordinary comment from Merton, that without her contribution we remain not human. And what extraordinary life–actually both lives. I wonder if the rest of us can aspire to more than moments of opening and/or Good Householder status. What does it really take? Besides a willingness to lrelinquish a lot of the usual comforts and consolations…and to die young.

      1. It takes genuine need. I think that those like Simone “need” truth from the depth of their being while for us, we need from only a small part. The majority of us are content with imagination and self justification calling it “peace.”

        “Purity is the power to contemplate defilement.” Simone Weil

        Simone “needed” because she was capable of this purity of seeing. Where we seek to avoid contradiction, she welcomed it

        When a contradiction is impossible to resolve except by a lie, then we know that it is really a door. Simone Weil …

        Where New Age seeks peace and calm, those like Simone welcome the insecurity of the contradiction in pursuit of truth. I found this same idea in Jacob Needleman’s most wonderful book “Lost Christianity.” This is a long excerpt so I’ll post a link to a site that posted it.

        Finally, a truly Christian life is possible only for an individual in whom the process of soul-making has gone past a certain point. Such individuals are rare; but only they are capable of altruism in the strictly spiritual sense. In Fr. Sylvan’s language, the soul begins to radiate. He writes: God created Adam as the intermediate. The intermediate is the beginning, but for me the beginning is the goal.
        In short, the soul is not a fixed entity. According to Fr. Sylvan it is a movement, that begins whenever a man or woman experiences the psychological pain of contradiction. It is an actual energy, but one that is only at some beginning stage of its development and action. Every day, every more or less average individual experiences the appearance of this energy in its most embryonic stage. Whenever there is pain or contradiction, this energy of the soul is released or activated. Lost Christianity is the lost or forgotten power of man or woman to extract the pure energy of the soul from the experiences that make up his or her life. This possibility is distinct only in the most vivid or painful moments of our ordinary lives, but it can be discovered in all experiences if one knows how to seek it.

        Certain powerful experiences are often accompanied by the sensation of presence, and attention appears that is simultaneously open to a higher, freer mind or spirit, and to all the perceptions, sensations and emotions that constitute our ordinary self. One feels both separate and engaged in a new and entirely extraordinary way. One experiences “I am.” This is the soul in its inception.

        My guess is that Simone was a radiating partially developed soul as described in the above passage who needed this direct experience of life without buffers to continue growing in its journey home. What is so difficult for us was a need for her. I cannot find any other explanation.

        We don’t have this freedom or the need for it but that is not to say that she and those like her cannot help us to become more inwardly free so as to profit from the experience of contradiction rather than avoiding it as disturbing the peace with whatever inner lies possible.

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