“Oh, Auden said everything,” was Grace Paley’s response to a student’s question at the Juniper Writing Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst this past summer. After hearing a stream of Paley’s short poems I got the impression that if my Nana would have regularly sat down for tea with William Carlos Williams this is the person she would have become.
During Paley’s Q&A session, moderator Chris Bachelder prompted her to talk about “Two Ears, Three Lucks,” the introduction to her collected stories. She said one must have “the ear of listening to the world and the ear of listening to literature.” Paley then moved into moments of her past: her babooshka reading stories aloud in Russian, sneaking down to the foot of the stairs at night to listen to her parents talking, hiding under the kitchen table to just listen.
This careful listening translates to work that pulses with a living language springing from conversation; it’s fluid, it’s moving, it doesn’t always need quotation marks. When asked about characters, she spoke of “giving life to people—your character must live and do what they want to, not what you want them to do—you must look at them with great surprise, understanding, interest, and curiosity.”
Another fitting quote, a reminder of the ever present wit in Paley’s stories, was said sometime during the session, “The only thing that makes a plot is the word ‘then.’ I can say ‘then’ as good as anybody.” She certainly did.
August 27, 2007
by Joy E. Stocke
Joan Halifax Roshi is one of Buddhism’s leading contemporary teachers, Zen priest, anthropologist, and author of numerous works including The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom. Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher at Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico, Roshi Joan has worked in the area of death and dying for over thirty years and is Director of the Project on Being with the Dying.
“My field is dying.
You could say I’ve been on a death trip for the past twenty-five years. How do we die?
How we die and how we live can’t be separated because the factors and policies surrounding death affect the well-being of the planet.
Although, I’m a specialist in death, I’m also an incredible generalist. How did I come to be a generalist on a death trip?
Ralph Abraham and Amy Varela (psychoanalyst and wife of the late neuro-scientest Francisco Varela) remind me that to be in a changing system, catastrophes – or unexpected changes both personal and political – can produce new emergences.
My own catastrophe was blindness and paralysis at age four. I was blind until age six and was not well-socialized, so I became an introvert with a personality; a one-on-one, or a one-in-a-thousand being. Since I could not see and spent much time alone, I had to learn to see beyound seeing. And because I was so young, my blindness was a non-tragic, but interesting time in my life.
The person who took care of me was an African American woman whose mother was a slave. She was very poor, but to me she seemed freeer than anybody. Because of my relationship with her, by the time I reached my late teens, I was deeply committed to the Civil Rights Movement.
My generation also became aware of the damage we were doing to the ecological system. We had the opportunity to develop a path of social action. It was not then – and is not now – frivolous.
I had the opportunity to work with folklorist and musicologist, Alan Lomax, who, with his father founded the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. What I learned in my relationship with Alan was the importance of cultural and environmental diversity. The Civil Rights Movement spoke to that. We spoke up against the way our society was pressing us into a kind of monoculture, one where everything becomes objectified. I’ve discovered that this issue of objectification has pervaded our global culture, this notion that we posses the earth.
With Alan I started my fieldwork in Pentecostal churches, my caregiver’s church, and became fascinated with alternate states of consciousness I witnessed during service. In 1969, I went to Mali to the Dogon people. Every 53 years they have a seven-year period of initiation. I sat there and thought, how do we transform in our own culture? Our initation rites offer no alternative but to send kids to war. Or we get them drunk. There is no opportunity for true maturation.
The question came to me. How do I deepen my life? I had begun sitting in meditaion in 1965, just sitting. And I thought, this is a refuge that gives a wonderful gift every day, after a while, and sometimes.
The Buddha himself had a really hard time in meditation. Mara, the ruler of desire and death, always came to him, even into his death because the Buddha died at a time of war; a time and place not so different from now. What he came to understand is that nothing is fixed in time and space.
It was liberating to realize how groundless our moment-to-moment experiences really are. We have to ask the question, what is a self? Is that a me and everything else is not me?
In meditation we know there is no other. Even Einstein knew that the idea of the “other” is foolish.
There is one thing we all have is breath – an engine – a piston that goes up and down. The in-breath. The out-breath. The piston that one day stops. So Buddhism is medium for dying people, caregivers, famiy institutions.
Upaya Zen Center is a place that expresses diffrerences that nourish and engender one another. And so we must always live with questions about the institution we created in order to do our work. Do we downsize? Or answer a bigger calling? How do we have a sense of profound intimacy and socialize ourselves into healthy growth knowing that growth engenders breakdown? Knowing that we’re not going to grow without catastrophe? This is a great and interesting problem.
It takes surrender, but incredible determination to punch through our points without attachment to outcome.
Thich Nat Han said, ‘Our own lives are the instrument where we experiment with the truth.’
We should remember that only ten percent of people die quickly and painlessly. For the rest of us, whether we are on a conscious death trip or not, we will share this process with the people we love, and they will do this with us.
August 9, 2007
by Joy E. Stocke
Ralph Abraham – Mathematician – A pioneer of chaos theory and its applications. Abraham is Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of California at Berkeley, and creator of the Visual Math Institute. He has taught at Berkeley, Columbia, and Princeton before moving to the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1968. He has performed works of visual and aural mathematics and music (with Ami Radunskaya and Peter Broadwell) since 1992.
“A year and a half ago, I had a Fulbright to Kokata, India. I stayed at the Ramakrishna Mission and Institute – http://www.sriramakrishna.org/
Nowadays Kolkata is like Boston with fabulous schools where I had the opportunity to lecture on chaos theory. In my early history I spent a lot of time in India “out of time.” Ever since, I’ve been thinking of how to make use of my experience, and was finally given the opportunity when I was asked to participate in a conference on science and consciousness. I was with a group of yoga practicioners. They included yogis who live in caves; Christian mystics from Egypt, Sufi practitioners. These people were models of consciousness according to personal experience.
What you have in India is a culture of scientists who meditate. I don’t find this much in the U.S. It’s not taken seriously here, but in Kolkota that is okay. I ended up in partnership with a quantum physicist who was studying Yoga Nidra or yogic sleep.”
(Ed. Note: In Yoga Nidra, one leaves the waking state, goes through the dreaming state, and into the deep Sleep state, yet remains fully awake.)
“He had been author of an advanced model for quantum vacuum, which is a weird thing beyond reality. The quantum vacuum is the realm of energy behind matter. In this realm, there is neither space nor time and yet everything in it is interconnected.”
(Ed. Note: The properties of the Universe come from `nothing’, where nothing is the quantum vacuum – a piece of `empty’ space that is not truly empty. It is filled with spacetime, which has curvature and structure, and obeys the laws of quantum physics. Thus, it is filled with potential particles, pairs of virtual matter and anti-matter units, and potential properties at the quantum level.)
“He said, ‘Let’s use the quantum vacuum as a model for the soul. Something which all mystics know exist, but which has never been scientifically proved or quantified. My day job involves a lot computer programming for bioiolgists, social scientists. For example: With voters, why do the Democratic and Republican platforms drift together? So we thought, maybe a computer program can help answer the question of the soul.
We came to this conundrum: Condensation creates the illusion of space-time – zilions and zillions of nodes that are conneceted by links. Condensation has micro times – changing lights. Out of this comes an illusion of ordinary time. So time is created step by step from an object which is eternal.
There can be evolution following laws of physics, biology. This condensation process, if we envision it the right way, makes us understand without conflict parnormal behavior.”
(Ed. Note: Paranormal – any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.)
“In the neo-Platonic emanation view of reality in some sense creation is from the top down. You have Plato’s cave where human beings only see shadows on the wall, not the reality. In Plato’s world, human beings are simply passive agents in the story of creation.
In the condensation model, the agency becomes important because the understanding of condensation would include the mind of the observer. How do we base ths out of relativity?
We have among paranormal phenomena, free will, something which doesn’t appear in Einstein’s view. But the physical world has evolved the quantum vacumm. I want to make a phantom double: the soul. So we create a model for mind and a model for the body. We can double them up by putting links between them.
We create dynamic cell networks in our model for mind, which we only know through our experience. It’s hard to write the rules for a model. But the point is, what we think matters, and thoughts exist.”
August 6, 2007
by Joy E. Stocke
Mary Catherine Bateson - Cultural Anthropologist – Author of many books including, Composing a Life; co-author with her father, Gregory Bateson, of Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred.
“A few years ago, in Composing a Life, I focused on women – because women’s lives have changed so radically – and how women deal with various demands. I wrote of women’s lives as improvisatory art. Shifts in women’s lives are like shifts in a piece of music. We ask the question, ‘How do I put this together in composition with that? How do those strands complement one another, rather than conflict?’
I mean, heck, I was in my forties when I wrote Composing a LIfe. Some librariarians from the Americans for Libraries Council came to me, and said, ‘Soon we’re going to be a society of retired people. What should they do besides read large print books?’
Since I turned 65, I’ve been thinking about what is there besides large print books? We are undergoing huge demographic changes. For most of human history average life expectancy was 30-40 years. An awful lot of infants died. Elders were rare and precious. Today in the U.S., life expectancy has reached the later 70s. Everybody’s panicked. What are we going to do with greedy geezers who are not contributing to the economy?
First, a couple of odd characteristics that developed during the evolution of our species. We have long, dependent childhoods, which makes learning possible; and we have an uncoupling of sexuality from the estrus cycle. Since most species mate to breed, this uncoupling for human beings is important.
Why should natural selection – which depends on breeding to produce offspring – select for longevity? Because, if you have a social species with a capacity for learning, survival of the group is enhanced by the memory of our elders. A lot of insects breed once and die. For social critters like us, long memories are important.
I like to tease the librarians because now that we have writing, we don’t need longevity. It’s all there in our books. Almost.
What strikes me about the situation we’re in now – dropping birthrates, longer survival – is that we’re moving from a social structure that included children, adults, and the precious resource of grandparents to a structure where we’ve got a wealth of grandparents in relation to structure of society. Now a child could have eight grandparents through divorce and remarriage. And It’s very important to think through about what this will mean.
I have conversations with people all the time. They say, ‘I’m 65, I don’t feel 65.’ They’re simply saying, ‘I have arrived at this age with sterotypes about aging, which are no longer applicable.’
August 4, 2007
by Joy E. Stocke
The Upaya Zen Center nestles into the mountains a sufficient distance from Santa Fe that I’m sure I’ve made a mistake walking into the hills without a map. When I ask two police officers in separate cruisers where the center is, they look at me with raised eyebrows as if to suggest I turn around and fly back to New Jersey.
I stop a third car, and a young man says, “You’re standing in front of the entrance. The monastery is hiding in plain sight.” And then he drives away…
His words could be a mantra for what is about to transpire within the walls and gardens of Upaya, where Abbot Joan Haifax, Roshi, presides over a gathering of artists, scientists, architects, writers, poets, philosophers, mathematicians and spiritual leaders, which include Mary Catherine Bateson – daughter of antrhopologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson; her sister Nora, who is making a film of her father’s life; mathemetician Ralph Abraham, an expert in chaos dynamics; poet and farmer, Wendell Barry; the Reverend James Parks Morton, former Dean of the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, and founder of the Interfaith Center of New York; and Saul Mendlovitz, Director of the World Order Models Project.
We are guests of cultural historian William Irwin Thompson, one of my mentors. In 1972, Thompson founded the Lindisfarne Fellowship, an association of creative individuals in the arts, sciences, and contemplative practices devoted to the study and realization of what he calls, “a new planetary culture.”
What Bill means by that is not so easy to quantify. In her opening remarks, Roshi Joan sums up the early years of Lindisfarne: “We felt a sense of urgency in those years. We thought the world was uraveling. And so we created a consort – summed up best in the work of Paul Winter – a consort that was wild and safe and where our relationships were vital.”
Joan spoke of the philanthropist Laurence Rockefeller who had “extraordinary faith in Bill,” and “who made it possible for us to take risks.” She also reminded us that this is the first meeting of Lindisfarne Fellows in ten years and that as the orginal members age, “there will be a point of discontinuation of people who have transformed the landsape.”
“It’s important to bring us together now,” she says. “Not to look at what we’re doing, but to see what lies ahead. Elders cary the possiblility of prophecy. So let’s sit with our mortality and remember that Lindisfarne is a process, not an institution.”
We are sitting in semi-circle, our shoes off, some with notebooks poised. She seems to look at each one of us, particuarly at the younger faces in the room, “This could be our swansong,” she says, “or maybe we swans will lft up our voices and sing.”
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