Feeds:
Posts
Comments

sanders

Speech after long silence; it is right.

–W.B. Yeats

Scott Russell Sanders (b. 1945) is a distinguished American essayist and the author of more than twenty books, most recently The Way of Imagination (Counterpoint, 2020). A writer with no declared religious affiliation but deeply spiritual inclinations, he has brought a searching, moral perspective to subjects as diverse as art, marriage, parenthood, community, the natural world, and, of late, environmental peril. And in two of his most personal and affecting essays, he has engaged the dual, contrapuntal themes of silence and speech, stillness and activity, solitude and social interaction. Though written long before the pandemic, these penetrating essays could hardly be more relevant to our present time.

            In “Silence” Sanders recounts his visit to a Quaker service. The setting is the meeting house of the North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis, a “frowsy, good-natured space,” where he “sank into stillness” and explored the “absence of human noise,” “below the babble of thought.” In prose as unadorned as its subject, he describes an interior silence so deep that he could hear the blood beating in his ears. Contrasting the austerities of Quaker worship with the “scripted performances” of other, larger churches in the area, he confesses his motives for coming to this one: to escape from the “human racket” and “the obsessive human story” and to meet “the nameless mystery at the core of being.” During the hour and a half he spends in quietude, he indeed descends into the depths of silence. He “touches bottom,” or seems to. Yet he also wonders whether what he has reached is the ground of being or “only the floor of [his] private psyche.”

            Whichever it might have been, Sanders’ dive into the depths of self and silence is abruptly curtailed when an elder rises to speak. Soon afterward, this same man extends his hand to the person next to him, a signal that the service has ended. There follows a period of socializing, in which the twelve people present, Sanders included, share personal anecdotes and reflect on their recent experience. Laughter ensues, and the air is “filled with talk.” At this point, the tenor of Sanders’ essay also abruptly shifts, becoming lighter, warmer, and more relational. What began as a solemn meditation on the experience of silence becomes something more complex: a dynamic study of silence and speech, introspection and social interaction.

            Something analogous occurs in “Stillness,” a later essay, although the setting is distinctly different. In this essay Sanders recalls a period of solitude spent in his newly built studio, a twelve-by-fifteen-foot cedar hut situated between a meadow and a woods. In this instance his motive was not so much to escape external human noise but to “cast off worry and grief,” collect himself, and dwell in the present. Watching dust particles floating in the sunlight, he likens their “Brownian motion” to the “mad rush” of his daily life, the unceasing professional activity driven, he concludes, by guilt, fear, and a desire to “stave off death.” Calming himself through conscious breathing, he reflects on the “wild energy” common to nature and himself. “My breath and the clouds,” he acknowledges, “ride the same wind.”

            As in “Silence,” this encounter with contemplative solitude comes to an abrupt end, as Sanders steps outside his hermitage to watch the flight of a pair of red-tailed hawks. Back in the world, as it were, and awaiting the arrival of his wife, he recognizes his urgent need for relationship. “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, and I’m eager for company. . . . I long to hold my children and catch up on their lives. I want to share food with friends. I want to sit with my students and talk over the ancient questions. I want to walk among crowds at the farmers’ market and run my hands over the melons and apples and squash.”

            Sanders’ realization of these natural human desires, occasioned and amplified by his experience of solitude, may strike a chord with those of us who have endured more than a year of curtailments, restrictions, and social isolation in the service of the common good. We, too, have longed to share food with friends, hold our distant loved ones, and walk, unmasked, in the farmers’ market. Concluding his essay, Sanders speaks of carrying “back into [his] ordinary days a sense of the stillness that gathers into the shape of a life, scatters into fragments, and then gathers again.”  Perhaps we, too, who have suffered the absence of normal human relationships and activities, can carry back into our ordinary days whatever insights, wisdom, and renewed appreciation we may have acquired during our many months apart. Speech after long silence; it is right.

_____

Scott Russell Sanders, “Silence,” The Force of Spirit (Beacon, 2000), 151-164.

Scott Russell Sanders, “Stillness,” A Conversationist Manifesto (Indiana, 2009), 195-20.

Photo: Scott Russell Sanders

In a drawing our seven-year-old granddaughter made during the lockdown, Rapunzel is escaping from the wicked witch’s tower. “We rescue ourselves without long hair,” she explains, as she and a companion descend from a rope suspended from a window. Meanwhile a knight-in-arms, who has arrived on cue to liberate the damsel in distress, looks on, bewildered.

Our granddaughter’s drawing admits of multiple interpretations. To a contemporary feminist, it might exemplify a salutary revision of a patriarchal tale. To a child psychologist, it might represent a healthy, if anxious, response to prolonged confinement. But to a Marine Corps veteran—or anyone who remembers Clint Eastwood’s movie Heartbreak Ridge—the imprisoned maiden’s resourceful escape might bring to mind a familiar mantra.

Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome may or may not have originated with the US Marines, but it has long been associated with that branch of the armed services. According to one theory, the motto reflects the fact that the Marines, for all their valor on land and sea and in the air, have often found themselves on the tail end of the supply chain. They have learned to make do. Their verbal triumvirate, itself a model of minimalism and concision, offers one effective way of dealing with adversity, uncertainty, and deprivation. And, as a three-pronged tool for coping with life’s vicissitudes, it has much in common with three cardinal principles of Zen teachings.

Improvise

Of the truths that the Zen tradition holds to be self-evident, none is more central than the impermanence of all conditioned things. Challenged to encapsulate Zen teachings in seven words, the American poet Jane Hirshfield proposed, “Everything changes; everything is connected; pay attention.”

If we are indeed paying attention to our experience, we have little choice but to assent to Hirshfield’s first assertion. Not only does everything, in the long or short run, change, be it external phenomena or our private feelings, notions, and states of mind. More fundamentally, those moment-by-moment changes are governed by what Zen calls the law of impermanence. Paradoxically, that natural law differs from human laws in not being subject to revision or revocation.

Given the universality of impermanence, improvisation becomes more than a last resort, to be employed only when there is no practical alternative. It might better be seen as the only realistic response to ever-changing conditions, external and internal. Whether the situation at hand be the absence of an essential ingredient when following a favorite recipe or the arrival of an unexpected visitor just as one is sitting down to dinner, improvisation is often the most practical, appropriate, and humane course of action.

Adapt

The second imperative in Hirshfield’s formulation—“everything is connected”—articulates a second fundamental tenet of Zen teachings, namely the doctrine of interdependence or “dependent origination.” Simply put, this doctrine states that everything depends upon everything else. The things of this world may appear solid, singular, and autonomous, but in reality they are transitory, insubstantial, and interconnected in the vast web of life. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains in his book The Heart of Understanding, a piece of paper depends for its very existence on trees, water, soil, the forester, and so on. Without them, the paper could not exist.

For that reason, it is seldom wise to reflexively apply a rigid formula to a specific situation. Causes and conditions must be considered, and our practiced responses must be adapted to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. Analogous to its counterpart in the natural world, the practice of adaptation in human affairs requires us to remain continuously aware of present conditions and to align our best efforts with those conditions, lest our well-intentioned actions prove erroneous or harmful.

Overcome

In its original context, this term applies most directly to external obstacles: whatever stands in the way of a successful mission. Applied to Zen practice, however, the metaphor of conquest may seem a poor fit, the primary aims of the practice being not military victory but clarity, equanimity, and compassionate wisdom.

Yet, in everyday life, Zen practice often involves “going against the grain,” whether that grain be conventional thought or, more immediately, the force of habit. Zen teachings speak often of “habit energy,” viewing that energy in a largely negative light. Ingrained and often impervious to change, our long-standing habits present formidable obstacles to improvisation and adaptation, and more so as we grow older. “I adore tradition,” the pianist and teacher Nadia Boulanger once remarked, “but I cannot stand habit.” Her aversion was not unfounded.

Over time, however, even the force of habit can be overcome, chiefly through the office of mindful awareness. Through diligent practice, Zen teachings assure us, the “energy of mindfulness” can encompass and transform our most corrosive habits of heart and mind. Conjoined with the practices of improvisation and adaptation, it can enable us to live more flexibly and wisely—and rescue us from our self-constructed towers.   

245. Holy water

Continue Reading »

244. Today is today

shunryu-suzuki PS

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

Continue Reading »

For people suffering from hypertension, panic attacks, insomnia, and other anxiety-related afflictions, many doctors now prescribe meditation. As a longtime practitioner, who has experienced the benefits of meditation over and again, I heartily endorse that prescription. But “meditation” is a large category. And even if you narrow it to Buddhist meditation, what you are speaking of is a loose aggregate of teachings, forms, and practices, some of them more useful than others.

Here in the midst of a pandemic, when most of us are experiencing fear, anxiety, and uncertainty on a daily basis, any meditative practice that purports to be helpful needs to address that emotional landscape. At the same time, that same practice will be most beneficial if it also enables the practitioner to remain engaged and realistic. Absent that realism and engagement, meditation can become yet another form of escape, and its overall benefit will be limited at best.

Of the many Buddhist practices available and accessible to newcomers, I would recommend two in particular. The first is drawn from the Theravadan school of Buddhism, as practiced in Southeast Asia. The second is rooted in the Chan and Zen schools of medieval China and Japan. Worthwhile as these practices are in separation, they are even more so when skillfully combined. At once contrasting and complementary, they address the need for stability and concentration, on the one hand, and on the other, the need to remain open and fully aware of a rapidly changing social reality. Continue Reading »

242. The still point

John Daido Loori

In his poem “New Hampshire” (1923), Robert Frost broods on the meaning of a place name. Listing the names of small towns in that state, he pauses at the name Still Corners, remarking that the town is “so called not because / The place is silent all day long, nor yet / Because it boasts a whisky still—because / It set out once to be a city and still / Is only corners, cross-roads in a wood.” Whether Frost is pulling the reader’s leg, as he was known to do, or is making a serious point about stunted growth, his riff calls attention to the suggestive ambiguity in the name he’s elected to contemplate.

A kindred ambiguity surrounds the phrase “the still point,” which Frost’s contemporary T.S. Eliot brought into prominence in his poem “Burnt Norton” (1936). In that expansive meditation on “time present and time past,” Eliot alludes to “the still point of the turning world,” a coinage that has since found its way into the mainstream of English discourse. At least three American wellness centers are known as The Still Point, and the British writer Amy Sackville chose the phrase as the title of her debut novel, identifying the “still point” with the North Pole. More pertinently for Zen practitioners, John Daido Loori (1931-2009), founder and abbot of the Zen Mountain Monastery, invoked the phrase for his book Finding the Still Point, a basic manual on Zen meditation. For Loori, finding that point was an essential component of Zen practice, if not its central aim. Continue Reading »

Shundo Aoyama Roshi

If there is one commonly held value in our divided culture, it is the idea—and the ideal—of perfection. We would like to eat the perfectly cooked burger (or steak, or ratatouille). We would like to go on the perfect vacation. We desire perfect health, a perfect relationship, a perfect retirement, and even a perfect death, whatever that might be. That the goal of perfection, whether in work or love, is elusive and for many unattainable only heightens the intensity of the struggle.

To this familiar but often destructive system of values, Zen teachings offer a salutary alternative. In her book Zen Seeds, the Soto Zen priest Shundo Aoyama Roshi (b. 1933) describes the characters on a hand-painted scroll hanging in a tea house. Some of the characters are misaligned, and one is missing. As Aoyama explains, when “ordinary people” practice calligraphy, they “go to great pains to achieve perfect alignment and would consider missing characters inexcusable.” But from the vantage point of classical Zen teachings, perfection is not necessarily a virtue. “When the line wavers,” wrote Zen master Murata Juko (1422-1502), founder of the tea ceremony, “and characters are omitted . . . the effect is superior.” And, in the words of Yoshida Kenko (1284-1310), “When everything is carefully regulated, it’s boring.” By contrast, imperfection can be a source of interest, truth, and beauty, whether the context be visual art, the natural world, or the conduct of everyday life. Continue Reading »

240. Distant mountains

Meido Moore Roshi

Winter is the season of contraction. In the northern latitudes the earth contracts, and so do our daylight hours, our bodies, and our minds. To counter the ill effects of contraction, some of us engage in outdoor walking or winter sports or employ such interventions as anti-depression lighting. But another proven method, drawn from the Omori school of Rinzai Zen, can help to counter the feeling of contraction, while also enhancing our sense of freedom.

In Zen practice this method goes by various names. It is sometimes called “spreading out the vision” or, more lyrically, “practicing soft eyes.” This way of seeing is not unique to Zen. It is also used intuitively by martial artists, hunters, equestrians, quarterbacks, soldiers on reconnaissance, and others whose activities require unusual breadth of vision. But in Rinzai Zen the technique of spreading one’s vision is more than a useful adjunct to an existing repertoire of skills. It is a vital component of the practice. And in his new book Hidden Zen, the Rinzai Zen teacher Meido Moore Roshi offers the most thorough discussion to date of this important practice. What follows here is a summary of that discussion. Continue Reading »

Thank You Thank You 1211120 PS2

In the spring of 1985 I visited the Republic of Ireland for the first time. Four months earlier, my mother had died at the age of 82. Having lost my second parent, I was feeling vulnerable, perhaps more so than I realized. And Ireland itself was none too stable, being in the midst of a fierce sectarian conflict. Known to the Irish as the Troubles, that conflict was centered mostly in the North, in the cities of Belfast and Derry, but its presence could be felt in Monaghan, the rural border county where I had come to live and write.

I had applied and been accepted for a residency at the Tyrone Guthrie Center (aka Annaghmakerrig), a workplace for artists and writers near the village of Newbliss. By way of preparation, I had read multiple histories of Ireland and immersed myself in Irish literature, particularly modern Irish poetry. Among the poets I became familiar with, none engaged my sympathies more than the “ploughman poet” Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967), who grew up on a farm near the village of Inniskeen (pronounced INNISH-keen), which is also in Co. Monaghan. Even before I had laid eyes on the low green drumlins and the furze-bordered tillage fields of the Monaghan landscape, I had experienced those features through Kavanagh’s verse and prose. As the bus from Dublin rolled through the countryside on its way into Monaghan town, what I saw through the window largely confirmed what I’d already imagined.

“My black hills have never seen the sun rising,” wrote Kavanagh, whose vision of his native ground is unfailingly vivid but deeply ambivalent. His early poems project a countryman’s intimacy with the “flocks of green potato stalks,” the “lime and copper smell / Of the spraying barrels,” and other physical objects in a subsistence farmer’s world. But they also project a loathing of the “stony grey soil of Monaghan,” which, he came to believe, had “clogged the feet of [his] boyhood” and “burgled the bank of [his] youth.”

That enduring inner conflict, which permeates his poems from first to last, undergirds his early sonnet “Inniskeen Road: July Evening,” where he observes the bicycles going by “in twos and threes,” their riders headed for a dance in “Billy Brennan’s barn.” He notes the “half-talk code of mysteries” and the “wink-and-elbow language of delight,” but he also notes the unsettling quietude of Inniskeen Road and the absence of even “a footfall tapping secrecies of stone.”

The mood of loneliness conjured by those observations reaches its peak in the sonnet’s closing stanza:

I have what every poet hates in spite

Of all the solemn talk of contemplation.

Oh, Alexander Selkirk knew the plight

Of being king and government and nation.

A road, a mile of kingdom. I am king

Of banks and stones and every blooming thing.

Likening himself to the marooned Scottish privateer whose plight inspired Robinson Crusoe, Kavanagh expresses both his sense of mastery over his surroundings and his acute sense of alienation. Both are suggested by the phrase “every blooming thing,” which conveys both its literal meaning and overtones of dismissal and disdain.

The place name Inniskeen means “peaceful island.” Having felt the power of Kavanagh’s sonnet, I was eager to visit that tiny village (population 370), where the poet and his wife are buried. So one afternoon, an artist friend and I drove over to the village and found our way to the local cemetery. There we came upon Patrick Kavanagh’s final resting place: a gravesite covered with rough slate stepping stones, at the head of which stood a plain wooden cross. A plaque bearing four of Kavanagh’s lines was fastened to the cross:

 And pray for him

Who walked apart

On the hills

Loving life’s miracles

Affecting as this memorial was, its impact was superseded by what we discovered, moments later, on a nearby wall. Twelve lines from one of Kavanagh’s poems, in the poet’s own handwriting, had been reproduced in a holograph and mounted on the wall:

We are not alone in our loneliness,

Others have been here and known

Griefs we thought our special own

Problems that we could not solve

Lovers that we could not have

Pleasures that we missed by inches . . .

I thank you and I say how proud

That I have been by fate allowed

To stand here having the joyful chance

To claim my inheritance

For most have died before

The opening of that holy door.

These lines are excerpted from Kavanagh’s poem “Thank You, Thank You,” which was published in the spring of 1963, four years before the poet’s death.

By all accounts, Patrick Kavanagh was not a good farmer. As one of his neighbors told me, he “paid no heed to his fields,” being too busy reading books. At the age of thirty-five Kavanagh left Monaghan for the literary lights of Dublin, where he became both a famous, influential poet and a notorious controversialist. In his last decade, however, having barely survived a life-threatening bout with lung cancer, he experienced a spiritual rebirth, adopting an attitude he called “not-caring.” That profound change of heart infuses his late poems with a tone of humility and, as the Kavanagh scholar Sr. Una Agnew has pointed out, with a pervasive mood of gratitude.

“Curious this,” wrote the poet in his Self-Portrait, “how I started off with the right simplicity . . . and then ploughed my way through complexities and anger, hatred and ill-will towards the faults of man and came back to where I started.” Coming back to that “right simplicity,” he also found his way back to one of the simplest but most powerful phrases in the English language. Little wonder that his lines, encountered on a sunny afternoon some thirty-five years ago, have found a home in my memory and indeed in my daily awareness.

______

Patrick Kavanagh, The Complete Poems, ed. Peter Kavanagh (Goldsmith, 1972), 349, 390.

Una Agnew SSL, The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh (Columba, 1998), 239-240. “Blessing in a Christian context returns all reality to God in delight and mutual appreciation. It has taken Kavanagh a lifetime to achieve this sense of blessing. Gratitude is the mood which now characterizes his work . . .” (Agnew, 240).

Photo: Courtesy of the Patrick Kavanagh Centre, Inniskeen, Co. Monaghan, Ireland. Special thanks to Rosaleen Kearney for her kind assistance.

Here in early November, as I look out on the faded reds and golds of the Western New York landscape, I’m reminded of two verses from The Book of Equanimity, a foundational text of the Soto Zen tradition:

   Mother Nature goes on weaving warp and woof;

   the woven old brocade contains the images of spring–

Derived, oddly enough, from the same root as broccoli (L., broccus, pointed, projecting), the word brocade refers to a woven fabric in which a pattern of ornamental figures, often floral in character, stands out in low relief against a plain, contrasting background. Embodied in what is called an “unstructured weft,” the threads that form the figures of brocade were at one time made of silver or gold. The complex, labor-intensive process of brocading was performed by hand, and for most people its materials were prohibitively expensive. For those reasons, brocade has historically been associated with the royalty, the nobility, and the ecclesiastical hierarchies. In earlier centuries, in countries as diverse as India, Japan, Italy, and France, handwoven brocade was the fabric of choice for exquisite saris, kimonos, dresses, vestments, and the like. In keeping with this illustrious history, the word brocade connotes luxury, antiquity, and uncommon beauty. Continue Reading »