Saturday, August 16, 2014

What You Are: A Contemplation -- Larry Smith

Most of us can recall these universal lyrics from John Lennon’s song, “Imagine”:
Imagine there's no heaven/ It's easy if you try
No hell below us/ Above us only sky
Imagine all the people/ Living for today...
Imagine there's no countries/ It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too.
Imagine all the people/ living life in peace…

For all of these years, what I have missed is that Lennon is not finding fault with all of these aspects of living, but that he is questioning our identifying with them—telling ourselves that our religion, our country, our story is who we are. And what he is envisioning here is our living free and in the moment at peace with others and, most essentially, with ourselves. One thing I know is that hearing this gentle song has always lifted me and others.
This awareness was brought home to me recently by teacher Ezra Bayda who writes that what John Lennon is actually describing is “…the freedom of giving up our fixed views, even on the things we take most for granted, such as our patriotism or our religious views. Or our most cherished facades and self-images. Or the stories we cling to as ‘our truth’—such as the story ‘I need someone to take care of me,’ or ‘Life is too hard,’ or ‘I’m worthless.’” Bayda targets this screen of self-deception, then offers a way out: “An excellent question to ask ourselves is ‘Who would I be without this story? This belief? This identity? This fear?’ The question takes courage, because we have to look beyond the safety of the familiar.” (“No One Special to Be” in Tricycle Aug. 2014).  

This is the key then, to living authentically--not clinging to self-images that in reality confine or box us in. There is no need, there is no box. The deeper call is to let go and allow. Release the self to be open and free. I do believe that we all seek this deep and authentic self--our true nature. And I sense that acknowledging this self-deception, this identification with a subjective “me,” is the first step to freedom, breathing it in releases us and connects us. Bayda points to the lasting value of “honesty in looking at one’s life; not settling for complacency; living with presence, inner quiet, and inner strength; and living with appreciation and kindness—all of which contribute to true contentment.” Living this realization connects us and makes us whole again.  
I remember as a young man running track and falling into the rhythm of the run, the step-pull-step, the breath in and out and in again and out. In this I would look down at the ground moving under my body. I was running. I was the run. I’ve found that same inner connection in an abiding meditation that allows me to just be. To welcome this and achieve inner authenticity we let go of our mind’s insistence on our small self, what Bayda calls, “preserving our narrow world of being special, of needing to look and feel in a particular way.” Releasing ourselves from this subjective illusion of self as a “me,” rather than an “I.” Taking off the mask, allows us to breathe freely. How do we know the mask from the self? The masks are multiple—depending on the mood or the story we are telling ourselves. The self is lasting and basic.

Abandoning our need to be “special,” or unique and independent from the world around us, frees and opens us to a vast connectedness. We are one with our world. In doing meditation, whether sitting and breathing or walking slowly with each breath, my whispered mantra has become: “Nowhere to go….Nothing to do….No one to be…Just living this moment.” When we let go of our many views of ourselves, along with our stories of who or what we think we are, we arrive at a simple presence of just being—a clear sense of our most authentic self and our basic connectedness. We are free to imagine and to know ourselves as whole.
In her song, “What You Are,” singer, song writer Patty Griffin, invites us into this letting go to be, and a coming through to our true selves when she asks:
What do you wish you were?/  Do you wish you were
The light of every star?/ Nobody knows but/
maybe that's just what you are.
Imagine it. It’s already here.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

Zen Poem...August 2014

Summer Storm

Sitting out on the back porch
as rain pours down through trees—
thunder claps follow the flashes
in the darkness of night.
We sit and listen, burn incense, as a
moth puts out the candle light.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Writer Questions

These were passed along by fellow author Jeff Vande Zande. You are asked to answer and pass the questions along. Here's my responses:
1-What am I working on?
I'm doing the poems that come...mostly close to home and nature.
I'm also doing a series of short prose pieces to help writers.
2-How does my work differ from others in its genre?
My poems echo the ancient Chinese poets like Tu Fu, Wang Wei, Ryokan...and perhaps Contemporary Zen poets like Gary Snyder and Lucien Stryk.

3-Why do I write what I do?
I'm not striving for fame and fortune, but allowing my better self to emerge in my writings.
4-How does my writing process work?
You must listen to what comes...get it down once, then work to make it solid and clear. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Book Most Influenced You?

What book holds the most influence on you?

I have never had any trouble answering this. Why, it's Walden by Henry David Thoreau. But I’ve taken this occasion of asking myself here why it’ is so. Why is Thoreau's Walden the book with the largest impact on my life and my writing? There are certainly others, and I’ve done two literary biographies on authors Kenneth Patchen and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a film on poet James Wright. But it’s Walden: Life in the Woods that wins out for this working-class kid from a noisy steel mill town in the Ohio Valley. (The woods was always over the hills of the town, and streams ran to the river.)

Now, no one would conclude that I write like Thoreau, though many of his themes on nature and society carry over into my work. And I don’t really write like Patchen or Ferlinghetti or Wright either, though I may have tried at times. So I ask myself when and how did this influence first occurr.
I came to Thoreau first in a survey course in American literature at Muskingum College. Ralph Church was the teacher who opened up literature for me, and I fell in love with each period of writing, moving from the brave Puritan writers and the American neo-classical authors, on through to the Romanticists, Realists and Naturalists, then into the Modern and Contemporary movements. I swung on that pendulum of visions and found brother and sisterhood in almost all. Thoreau, following Emerson, was read in excerpts from Walden and of course “Civil Disobedience.” And that led to my buying the full Walden as one of my first book purchases not required for any course or withdrawn from the library. I read it from cover to cover, highlighting sections and writing tiny notes in the margins and on note cards (another first purchase). I was reading on my own and loving it, for I was a late discovered English and education major (I had started in math, but the abstract nature of Calculus turned me around). Literature was about life, something I could feel and sense like food and breath, and there was real beauty and sincerity. Thoreau took me there exploring the life of squirrels and chipmunks as well as neighbors; there was advice on building methods, planting, and passing trains.
Now as I think back, there was also an Intro to Philosophy course I was taking at the time from a young professor Stanly Elkins. And in this course, and perhaps some in Intro to Sociology , I met up with the theory of World View. Alfred North Whitehead was given credit for formulating and propagating this concept at the time. And it matched so well with what Henry David Thoreau was doing in his remarkable book. We all had our vision of the world and life values based on our own experience and learning. Here I was, a working-class kid in a liberal arts (Presbyterian) college, feeling as though I was being told to forget my past to fit into a middle class, professional world, and here was rebel Thoreau not buying any of it. In fact, he was valuing his past and his present and defying social standards and orthodoxy in favor of his own emerging world view. I stood at the threshold, and Thoreau took my hand and pulled me through. I’ve never looked back. Rather than giving me a sense of alienation from the world, Walden gave me self-reliance and showed me that there are many varied ways of seeing and being in the world and that I could respect alternative visions and allow myself to belong.
As to the writing influence of that great book, I recognize that I can’t do those long thought rambles like Thoreau, but his beautiful and mindful prose did open me to a generative way of thinking and feeling and listening—to a voice inside myself and in the world. He gave me what he himself was seeking: “Moreover, I, on my side, require of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men's lives.”
I’ll close this personal ramble with a quote from another Thoreau brother, essayist E. B. White who says of Walden, “Every man, I think, reads one book in his life, and this is mine.” He goes so far as to make this heartfelt recommendation: “If our colleges and universities were alert, they would present a cheap pocket edition of the book to every senior upon graduating, along with his sheepskin, or instead of it. Even if some senior were to take it literally and start felling trees, there could be worse mishaps: the axe is older than the Dictaphone [Read internet or Facebook here] and it is just as well for a young man to see what kind of chips he leaves before listening to the sound of his own voice” (“Walden—1954” by E. B. White.)
Thoreau caps it this way, "How vain it is to sit down to write if you have not stood up to live."

Monday, June 09, 2014

The Art of Listening--Fining Our Intention

“Listening to the story of the present moment invites us to understand the story of all moments.” -Christina Feldman

Let’s look at our intention when we sit down to write, because this intention remains the basis of all writing. It not only shapes the writing that we do but is its underlying message. Isn’t this true of all that we do? The plants we help grow, the talk we share with each other, the act of sharing? What is it we serve with our meal besides the basic food if it’s not our care in preparation and presenting? It’s in the taste.
For the writing I seek to do and share I ask for a bare and wholehearted attention. And I’ve learned over the years to back off from self motivation and manipulation and open more to the moment through deep listening. The same is true of deep meditation. A quieting and opening bring us there, a letting go of preconceived thought and control. “Write what you know” becomes “Write and what you know will come.” And so, releasing control and learning to trust have much to do with it. How you learn to do this has as much to do with your personal development as it does with finding strong models in others. What is it I feel in a great work of art or writing but this beauty and clarity of intention speaking through to me?  In the end, I believe we develop this mindfulness through practicing it.
Buddhist teacher Christina Feldman suggests that building this mindfulness to the present is concerned with “embracing and understanding the entirety of each moment.” Now I will admit that getting the “entirety” of the moment is challenging. So is hitting a homerun, or giving birth, raising a child, or saying the right thing to someone who is suffering…but it comes from letting go of thought to find the ground of being. When I sit outside in meditation and open to the all of the moment, I find myself drawn at first to details, framing images as though for a camera, focusing on use of the senses. I have to see this in myself and let it go. Then I can open to the deeper movement in things. The trees moving gently in wind talk to me. I am the trees. I am the wordless wind. The moment comes to us as a blessing, it’s all around us.
The highest praise for my own work is that it seems true, that the reader feels the sincerity of life singing through. And when I hear this, I want to deny self praise because I know that the writing was not something I made but a gift of the moment and the simple act of being fully present.

Monday, June 02, 2014

The Art of Letting Go

My son is a photographer, a quiet guy who watches and listens. In stillness he takes things in, holds them close, then lets them go. With a camera in hand he captures a moment in the stillness of an image held and framed and then released into the world. It’s the quality of attention that speaks below the surface, the ability to be present in the moment. As day moves softly toward night, and birds take wing then glide through air to land again on branch or grass, as leaves turn day by day to fall in autumn sun, so this sure change of life is captured and released for all in the photograph of color and light, the eyes and heart open.

As Buddhist teacher Christina Feldman explains it, “The eyes open the heart, and the heart opens the eyes.” We see new with a compassion that doesn’t grasp. Hold and release. Hold and release. That’s the secret of good writing and a full life. She speaks of this act as a kind of bow we make first to ourselves and then to others and the world.

Poet Mary Oliver captures this process in her “In Blackwater Woods” poem:

 “to live in this world
you must be able
to do three things

to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go”
 Photo by Brian Smith

And so the poem, the photograph, the painting is born out of a mindful and compassionate attention in an act of communion with the world. I do believe that is what we feel in all great art, and it's as natural as our breath.

[Christina Feldman is the author of The Buddhist Path to Simplicity. Mary Oliver's many books of poems can be found on Amazon. ]