LILY & THE PUERTORICAN CONNECTION
Between the lilies and the river,
the flamboyáns decorate the sky,
orange-red flowers fly away,
bringing well-wishes to the towns where
ladies´ white skirts swell in the damp wind
and men with hats laugh with their brown children,
and jasmine teases the mountain sides.
Somewhere far down the path,
the chickens wander the edges of the field
cleaning the farm of cucarachas.
Mango leaves in shadows of the yard gather,
creating lives full of sunfalls
and fat droplets of sweet green magic: tropical, magisterial,
passionate for the coming fall.
Between Lily and the richness of Borinquen,
with its platanos and promises,
a smile holds more sanctity
than la Santa Biblía
for the boy who yearns only to feel
What does it mean to be “contemplative” and what does a contemplative “do”?
One may be an introvert, thoughtful, a “quiet-type”, or a loner, but that is not the same as being a contemplative. Nor do robes, religious affiliation, shaven heads, or monastic or cloistered living guarantee that one is a contemplative, either.
It means, I think, to hold oneself in the deepest and most quiet places where there are no answers but where the very act of being exists as an enormous, awe-inspiring Question whose Presence is so delicate it requires one stop all other activities to sense it, or plug into it, but is so big as to outstrip all other aspects of self, revealing them to be of minuscule import by comparison, and demanding of one´s attention. All else is distraction. It means to retreat more and more to that place where one is there, holding that Question so close to oneself that they merge and one no longer sees the essence of living as separate from that depth. It means that when engaged in other things, there remains the Great Lingering Pull to go back “there” and to replenish oneself in the waters of the “farthest reaches” of my inner quiet.
I have met many priests, monks, and reclusive religious-types who were not contemplatives. I have also met naturalists, students, retirees, and workers who were. What distinguishes the contemplative from the person with a deep need for solitude or religious identity is the over-riding need above those others, for connection. This connection is not towards the world or the things of the world, but connection instead to the space of Being at its most primal depths. Without regular access to that, the contemplative suffers. Without tuning in to that frequency, the contemplative´s life is a scattered pulsing of impulses, needs and desires, many authentically deep, but not fully tapped into nor fully integrated.
When I was a child, I often sat on the ground across the street from my home, in the center of a schoolyard, and simply stared at clouds, sometimes for hours. That is where it began. This habit stayed throughout the otherwise tempestuous teens and I rarely took it as anything seriously. I also walked daily, sometimes again for hours, aimlessly wandering. I know it was deeper than loneliness because truth be told, I wasn’t´t really sad or lonely during those times.
I was fulfilled.
While there were many elements in my life which were unsatisfactory or wanting, they were not the cause nor the result of these inner excursions. They were tangential to the experience of retreating so far within that I managed to touch something nameless and yet still timeless inside me. Something that needed, and needs still, regular tending.
Today, I am comfortable in crowds, am quite sociable and enjoy and celebrate company and the fellowship of kindred spirits. Yet when I am alone, I am tapped into a deeper Source which fills me with the most wonderful feeling, the gift of holy interiority, in which I am driven to remain for a while, though the constraints of life interfere and activity beckons. As a very young man I dreamed of being a hermit in some Chinese mountaintop, of being a recluse in the forests of India, or a nameless monk hidden away in one of Japan´s remote monasteries. I lived for a time in many such environments and they remain the most fulfilling times of my life. When I worked “in the world” dealing with such interiority, as a Chaplain dealing with death and dying, I tapped into a social manifestation of that Great Work. Now, with children and home life, I am tried daily to retreat there for any substantial time and it is a struggle. I have deepened other aspects of living, “sympathetic joy” (mudita in Buddhism) around the joys of my children, for example, but extended periods fulfilling that call are far too few now. This is a sadness which requires addressing.
Over the years I have felt the deep sadness around the suicide of people I knew or had met and, no stranger to the Darkness myself, I was reminded of one in particular because of some incident I´d read about in the US and the recent use of semi-colon tattoos for those who have overcome and survived. This is for him… and for all the others who feel they can´t endure or who despair, it can get better, this is only a pause in the dark.
SEMI-COLON (JUST A PAUSE IN THE DARK)
The weight of his promise
crushed all but his tenderness.
His anger and passion
distilled thru his fear.
Alone on the pavement he managed to wander
sincere thoughts and guilt, his only two friends.
The dark leaden alleys,
brought nothing but shame.
The lights and the softness
were played like a game.
Now interior landscapes
all beckon with fire
Upon his weak shoulders
some ending felt near.
When does it end?
When does it end?
Cold nightmares remain:
the dreams died off early,
now faceless and empty
each day passes by.
No rescue is seen
No helpers are nearby,
Now Fate scrapes their face
etched by acid-dropped tears.
But a voice in his head
endures when others pass on:
This is not a full stop
Just a pause in the dark…
When does it end?
Someday it ends…
Someday it ends…
Someday it ends…
But the task as I see it, is to acknowledge the convenient fictions that make up this “me” while all the while striving to do things here, at this level, which pull me ever upwards in my ascent to…well, to live, in my case, is to wrestle in this manner.
Wrestling with Life is the true task of any awakened person or one striving for such an awakening. In fact, the very action of wrestling in this context, IS the process of waking up.
I am convinced that as we strive for the Highest, we must reach downwards to elevate those needed help. And, as we work so hard to to strive to better our world, that we never lose sight of the Great Context: we are but atomic specks contained in one delicate form in a vast and unfathomable Cosmos.
Doing the first would change the structures we currently live within, capitalism, first of all, and then gradually the more delicately constructed structures of violence and racism, sexism, homophobia, patriarchal systems thinking and other configurations of the social order dissolvable only by careful application of the acid of compassion and justice.
Doing the second means a more individualized humility towards Life itself, a more interior perspective which sees a Greater Perspective.
For me, Infinite Light and Infinite Life are the poetic descriptors of that grander vision, “Amida”, infinitude itself, and we are all “saved” already, lifted from our finite limitations and headed back to the wider depths from which we originated and to which we should embrace our eventual return. Doing what is right, the good; fighting for justice and a better, more fair world, is the task I undertake not as payment for entry into my true home, but as the ultimately natural expression of the Grander Benevolence which pervades all things. I need not worry about doctrinaire prohibitions or small print exclusions, I do good because it is there and is right and is the best way to benefit all beings. Somewhere down the line, the creation of that “Pure Land” here on Earth, may be the result, but I need not concern myself with results. Doing my little part is enough, and the moral compass my inner life is set towards is the path that makes this life better for me as well, and one I can look back with some confidence that it was all worthy.
Were we to operate with a requisite and healthy amount of pride in who we are while acknowledging others right to their pride in who they are under the umbrella of a universal, shared compassionate concern for the whole, our political, economic and social systems would look a whole lot different than they do now.
There is this problem. It is one that has perplexed me for years and one I continue to struggle with although far more spiritual people than myself have wrestled with it than I. Still, it remains. This problem is the resolution of the two issues I brought out earlier here and their resolution is definitely not an easy one. Who am I, both transitionally and, on the broader sense, cosmically? If I am a man, a Puertorican born in New York City, born to my parents who brought with them their own cultural, social, economic and other aspects of identity to the table of my being, then how do I reconcile that with that deeper sense of Being, that of a more philosophical nature and “its” relationship to Being Itself, however one conceives of this? And then the hard part (as if pondering those 2 questions isn´t hard enough!) of finding which one of those aspects of “me” is most important, reveals a “who I really am” and thus the one I should (exclusively) rely upon?
Sages and mystics chose the impersonal one, the broader one, the one most aligned with the greater concepts outside the realms of empirical verifiability. I like them. I wanted to retreat into some cave and ponder such questions night and live a life where that is all I did. I imagined myself cavorting with this age´s Ramana Maharshi or others like him or, more communally, living my life in some monastic setting where the collective efforts were to pursue such questions along the single-track of Higher truth. I even spent long periods of my life, in Japan and in the US at monastic retreats pursuing just that. I loved it.
I was also unsatisfied.
For I felt another “calling” within, to move arising from that smaller me towards activities which worked at making life for all people fairer, more just, more Truth-full, but narrowly settled within the confines of rent and kids, jobs and “regular” life. I loved people, felt for their sufferings, knew the deleterious effects of poverty and colonial mindsets on the self-esteem of people and I intuited that this was done to inculcate helplessness so that someone else could benefit. That people didn´t have to live in poverty, of mind or spirit, that there were those who pushed and kept them there and thus a great evil surrounded me which needed resistance. And given as I am to wanting to go out and help, I saw the greatest calling as rectifying the world´s “smaller” ills. So I have pursued that too with gravity and energy.
I still do.
And I am still wavering between these poles. Between the daily necessity to access the timeless quiet within me which I feel is connected to that higher sense of Being, and the less elevated attempt to alleviate pain and suffering among all around me, in this little life of barely a century, in this container of my smaller identity.
It is not just balance I seek. It is Wisdom. For without wisdom, how will I know what to do? How can I chose without knowing which direction should take the most of the little time remaining for me?
I am and have always been inspired by Thomas Merton. His life of seclusion (more physical and social than political or spiritual) was not spent running away from that deeper pursuit nor was he oblivious to the rapidity of the world´s changing nature around him. He threw himself into both. But he did so from his spiritual side. Can we emulate his example from the “domestic” side? How do we affirm who we are in the small sense while maintaining connection to a greater Truth which sees all of us from a “higher” perspective? This is no easy task.
Recently, Tao Ruspoli was featured in CounterPunch as a documentary he made of a great flamenco master tackled this idea of identity with gusto. I saw this man, a singer and grizzled bon vivant who I identified with, at least in terms of dreaming one day I might end up so purely involved in Life from this side, reciting poetry to friends (instead of songs in my case) and drinking heartily at all hours, making love to Life and reveling in the process with comrades who appreciated the same.
But what, then would happen to that me who longs for Eternity and its contemplation here and now? Where would he fit? I don´t know.
The author asks this question and hopes that it is possible:
The question is, can we affirm a unique cultural identity, celebrate “mastery” in particular domains (and embrace other hierarchies that skillfulness necessitates,) fighting against the forces of technology and globalization, all of which, according to Heidegger, level meaningful differences between people, places and things; can we do this without resorting to reactionary or backward-looking ideologies?
I would agree. Meaning, I don´t know. But the task as I see it, is to acknowledge the convenient fictions that make up this “me” while all the while striving to do things here, at this level, which pull me ever upwards in my ascent to…well, to live, in my case, is to wrestle in this manner. That we do the best we can down here, living as authentically as we can in the process, while looking to the Great Horizon with wonder and, dare I say, aspiration. Something like that…