Life in the presence

stars

Oscar Wilde wrote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

While literary critics have pondered the meaning of that provocative line, anyone pursuing spirituality in recovery knows immediately – and with great personal empathy – exactly what Wilde was saying: Even in the roughest storm of life, we can see the startling beauty of the heavens.

Despite his considerable literary talent, Wilde died an impoverished alcoholic at 46, in exile from England and mostly estranged from his family. He was imprisoned for two years for homosexuality, and for the rest of his life he was barred from seeing his two children from an earlier marriage.

In the darkness of the gutter, the stars can shine incredibly bright.

In a recent song by the metal band, Disturbed, they say, “Sometimes darkness can show you the light.”

The contrast between the dank despair of human decent and the eye-burning shine of spiritual revelation is shocking – sometimes it’s shock enough to lift us up to the world of the living. Other times, it’s merely the faint call of a promising world on the other side of death.

The light-filled world of connection and hope is a blink away. It’s right here in your breath. The path to this warm earthly home is visible through the stars that we see from the gutter. Even in the sour sink of fear, we are always strong enough to climb through. Yet many will die tonight for the lack of seeing that path. Their time will come again and again even so.

Watch The World Come Home

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When we get these feelings of spiritual connectedness, when it seems we are one with all that’s around us, even at one with our own lives, maybe we’re seeing a crack into the next world. Or the in-between world where spirit breathes for a moment before we enter a new earth with new skin.

Or maybe the world is spiritual in its essence and the connectedness is a brief view of what is actually true.

We wake up with needs, we wake up with pain, we wake up and choose to see the connectedness behind the pain and need. We wake up and see the need and pain of others and our own troubles subside. We attend to the needs and pain of others and the connectedness seeps in and the needs and pain drift away.

And what world is here before us?

Trees and houses and moons and clouds and dogs and wind and water. Is our pain among these?

Is our connectedness elsewhere or is it mixed into the world before us? Is our connectedness taste and skin and smells and the weight of air? Is our connectedness relief from this world, a reminder that our mammal life is just a moment along a curve of outrageous beauty?

For now, I am here among so many people, alive in the exquisite presence of love that doesn’t even know it’s love.

 

voices

All day long, we go around with a monologue inside our head – the chatter of our thinking. Much of it includes thoughts such as: what do I have to do next, why is this or that person making things difficult, what am I going to have to eat or drink in the next? Will I be late? Am I good enough to do what’s expected from me? What happens if I lose my income? How am I going to stop this pain?

Often – if not almost always – it’s a mixture of fear and stress.

We sometimes mix the negative voice with fantasies of escape or revenge. These fantasies are not tangible nor rational enough to produce satisfying action.

The voice in your head sounds like your own, but it’s not. It tends to be a compiled rumble of childhood messages mixed with adult conflicts and disappointments. The fears and stress are enunciated in your own words and in your own voice.

On the bright side, we can replace the negative thoughts with positive affirmations or steps toward solutions. Even then, a negative voice will pop up out of nowhere. Chasing those negative thoughts is like hitting the plastic moles in What-A-Mole. So, how do you untangle this mess of unhappy inner quarrels?

Here’s a secret for the ages: you don’t have to believe in your own thoughts.

Your thoughts are just thoughts, words streaming through your head like the crawl at the bottom of a news channel. Let those thoughts be. They are not you. You don’t have to own them. They actually get quieter if you pay them no mind.

It’s a tiny thing to learn, but it’s helped me a great deal.

The I Am Behind Who I Am

i-am

Do you ever get the sensation there is someone with you, in the background of your life somewhere? When I was a kid, I had a feeling of something faint in the background. I didn’t think it was God, because I associated God with church on Sunday, and most of what I felt about church was shoes that hurt and an itchy coat.

That childhood sense of something with me was most pronounced when I was by myself out in the woods or fishing or catching snakes or frogs by a pond. Something that knew me was near me. I don’t remember that is was comforting or loving, just that it was there. I didn’t think much about it.

When puberty began, that sense completely vanished. I spend a few years out of sorts with my family and school. I was awkward and hopeless, completely on my own, lost and alienated. In my late teens, experiences with psychedelic drugs brought that feeling back, but only later did I connect it what that feeling I had as a kid. At the time, it seemed the presence I felt was part of the drug experience.

When I began to meditate a few years later, I would experience a sense of presence. The sensation was in my arms and chest, and it came with a feeling of peace and well being. Sometimes the feeling was just above my head and a few inches behind me, connecting to the back of my head.

I thought of it as the sensation of spirit, a sensation of connectedness. I didn’t think of it as consciousness or awareness, and I certainly didn’t think of it as part of myself. Actually, I still don’t.

Then I ended up in the hospital – long story – where I was put into a coma for three weeks. I emerged from the coma with delusions – common when emerging from a sustained coma. The delusions are marked with vividness. Only later did I learn they were delusions. At the time they were exactly like real life.

As I came out of the delusions and began to get my “self” back, I had the sensation of something else looking out through my eyes. The feeling wasn’t alarming; it seemed natural. Everything was so crazy during that time, it was just another part of my bizarre recovery. I had to learn how to eat and walk again – those seemed to be the more pressing issues.

Yet that sense of something looking out through my eyes didn’t subside as things slowly returned to some sort of “normal.” The sensation has not left to this day, many years later. Something is looking out through my eyes. Some of the sensation is exactly like meditation, with a warm buzz in my chest and arms and a sense of well being and peace.

At any time, I can bring it into my awareness, in traffic, during moments of anxiety. It almost always calms me. I suspect that what I’m experiencing is the awareness of the larger “I Am” behind or beyond the self. If I were to choose one word for it, it would be “awareness.” Whatever that means. There is an awareness with me that seems to be looking out my eyes.

I believe it’s the same thing I experience as a kid in the woods, the same thing I experienced during psychedelic experiences and during meditation. Only now, it is much more pronounced. I can’t explain it, but it has become the centering focus of being alive.

This day I am thankful for

The taste of water fresh from the sky,

The sound of the moonrise,

The crisp rocks of the Sandia Mountains,

My dog’s eyes when she wants a walk,

Bare feet on the carpet,

The absence of mail,

The first taste of coffee, and the second,

My son talking through the night,

My friend showing up unexpected while I’m working,

The smell of rotting apples on the dirt,

A spoon I’ve used for decades,

Everyone who is reading this,

Words,

Black type on a white screen,

The presence behind my mind that writes,

The feeling in my arms when that presence is in my chest,

Breath,

Each story in an AA room,

Someone’s whisper,

The young woman minister when she tears up,

The pain of peppers,

My bed in the afternoon,

The smell of fall’s first heating,

The nativity scene carved in a gourd, a gift from my ex-wife who signed it, “to my husband,”

The touch of the uterine lining my child grew in,

My Harris tweed jacket,

Each day I’m alive.

What Rough Beast?

The change in leadership in the United States has a prompted a tsunami of fear across the country and further across the world. Take a deep breath. We’re OK. We have always been OK, no matter what the outward appearances.

I’ve been heartened by a slew of spiritual blogs that take on the challenge of finding good in these changes. The encouraging messages come in a number of flavors, from asserting that all things move together for the good, to the belief that the world of appearances is a distorted projection of our fear. Some say that odd historical turns can produce disruptions that allow for light to enter, while others turn to Martin Luther King’s words and proclaim that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

W.B. Yeats has an interesting view. He believed that Christ’s appearance on earth set forth 2,000 years of strife and struggle, that a gentle saint prompted a dark backlash twenty centuries long.

He also believed that a second coming would arrive – around now — with thunder and darkness, and this second coming – this rough beast as he called it – but usher in 2,000 years of light and love. His poem, The Second Coming addresses these beliefs. Here’s the last verse:

The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

leonard-cohen

With such clarity of words and melody, you will be easy to find among the stars. You will be a stopping point on our treks downward, a place of water that has not known thirst.

     And Jesus was a sailor when he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower

Scientology? I can understand the years of Buddhism. Not the Buddhism of retreat, but the Buddhism of endless effort, of wood and water. Leaning without love into the light that’s lovely but lacks music. Just before we get there, we awake. And then the music comes and we’re OK.

     And when he knew for certain only drowning men could see him
He said all men will be sailors then until the sea shall free them

I was a child when I first heard your song and I was amazed that somebody knew where I lived, like a whisper in my ear that says: this is not a trick – it is the beginning of a long cry. It’s that you worked so hard for this while we wondered what work there was to do.

     But he himself was broken, long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

The balancing couplet of Suzanne isn’t the sea freeing the sailor; it’s the savior broken against the wheel and left to stare at a starless sky. There is an opening just before us that we cannot see. Yet we hear it in your song and know that we’re not lost.