Monday, August 29, 2011

Rowing between Black and White

Why is it so hard for me to live on the lands of Black and White?
Why am I always trying to smudge the borders?
Stretch the boundaries, erase the drawn lines?
Extend my stay, outstay my welcome in the rivers of Grey?
Where I'm never entirely evil, but never genuinely good;
Where I'm forever dodging bullets,
Never really shooting them down, or staying out of their way;
Where I'm constantly questioning my conscience,
Trying to reason with it, make deals with it;
Sometimes pure and straightforward,
Sometimes slimy and under the bridge.
But the truth is slippery, isn't it?
What's true today could be a lie in eleven days
What's truly true is the intention behind my action,
But who really looks at intentions, when the actions are greyish?
Maybe I should break down the grey matter into black and white again;
Try to see what's real and what's not;
What's true and what's not;
What's white and stays white.
How easy the words and colors sound on paper,
All broken down into neat little pixels of black and white.
The struggle is keeping them that way - apart and separate,
And not let a wet brush come near them.
Alas the power and pain!
Of being the painter of my own life.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Is there Zen in Pain?

"Instead of running away from pain, try embracing it.  
Be the pain."
- Palzang

It's the 4th morning I'm waking up with this agonizing pain, debilitating really, nothing like I've ever had before. I tried going back to sleep, but it's impossible when there's not a single position that feels comfortable. The only sounds I hear are crickets chirping, the fan creaking, and the clock ticking. 3:30am. I've been awake for a half-hour now, maybe an hour - I had no sense of time before this, except that it was dark. I sighed and gave up on sleep, and dragged myself up into sitting for meditation. As I close my eyes and try to breathe deeply, I realize even breathing hurts. I hadn't noticed till now that I was barely breathing, just taking in shallow wisps of air and letting out thin streams of it, so as not to move a muscle, a lung or even my diaphragm. A funny question came to my mind - is this living?

Strange things come to mind when I can't sleep at 3am - I remember reading a Buddhist book where a part of it had talked about sitting with the pain, rather than swallowing pills to chase it away; and I had thought to myself then that this was how I would like to experience pain myself when I'm older. What a noble way to experience and understand my own pain, by being with it, talking to it, feeling the nuances of it. I had hoped to remember this book when I was older, when I'd have aches creaking in my body. Little did I know then what I had wished for, and how quickly my wish would come true.

So here I am, trying to sit up straight and meditate, but it turns out that the focus for my meditation is not some abstract light in my forehead, but a very real pulse point of pain, alive, throbbing, excruciating. It gives me a perverse pleasure trying to angle my neck this way or that way, just to feel a different facet of the same pain. I was so focused on it in fact, that I hadn't even realized that my feet had fallen asleep, and were starting to have dreams of their own! So I loosened my limbs and buckled down to the ground. My body sighed with pleasure while my neck groaned with pain. And in this strange position - my head resting on two fists layered one on top of the other, my body folded in half, my feet flexed and toes turned under - like a Muslim performing his prayer, I slept fitfully until the cat woke me.

I don't think this pain is going anywhere - it stays with me day and night, but I'm relieved that the night is over and I somehow caught a few winks of sleep. And in a couple of hours, I have to go spend a day in front of my work computer - the thing that probably gave me the pain in the first place. Hmm... I wonder if my neck is trying to say something - in the language that it knows.

Buddhists practice sitting in Za-zen (I believe the Sanskrit word for this is Dhyan) everyday to maintain a balanced state of nervous system. Zazen sitting would help keep my spine straight, and adopt a good posture, which is something I've almost never been good at - so I have many years of bad posture to overcome! A good posture is supposed to take the pressure off my back, relieve stress on my neck, and help strengthen those muscles. In the meantime, this is what I have to practice -
  • Not intend to overcome pain
  • Not fear pain
  • Accept pain as it is
  • Just sit with the pain in the present moment

    Friday, August 19, 2011

    Clouds of Maya

    Maya, by Anisha Bordoloi

    Last night, when I sat outside to read, my eye kept being drawn to the sky - billowy clouds were languidly stretched across the sky, shaping and reshaping themselves, seemingly for no other reason except to entertain themselves. And me. So I gave up the pretense of reading and watched the clouds in earnest.

    To me the few openings there were in the thick stretches of clouds seemed like tiny portals into Heaven. The openings were softly lit up in pink, in contrast to the thick white and grey clouds everywhere else. But where there were these gateways, the heavens looked divinely blue, giving me tiny glimpses of beyond. Beyond those pink gates, I imagined there were kingdoms of devas and angels, going about their business of making the world a little better, working out their karmas, without themselves being seen to us solid humans. I could make out the shape of a deva just beyond one of the gates holding out a tiny baby, maybe whispering into its ear secrets of his soul, and cautioning him against the wiles of his new world, before letting him go to make his entrance on the earth. It seemed like I was witnessing a precious passage happening right at that moment, over the threshold between heaven and earth, gods and humans, birth and growth, innocence and ignorance.

    And then the clouds closed, the gates shut, the show's over. I fell back down to earth. But those few moments that I imagined, got carried away on, didn't feel unreal. They just felt like I got to be part of something ultra-real. The window into the other world was inviting, teasing with a taste of something else. Something less solid, less tangible, but still real.

    When I realized the curtains closed on me, not because I was nosy, but because I had let my left brain take over, I was relieved to think that there might be a chance again to get a similar invitation again, into those elusive, illusive worlds, if only I'm willing to open myself up, still my mind, let the moment draw me in, and become a child again in that moment.

    P.S. Anisha is a friend from my school days, and we just reconnected a few days ago - it's a divine connection this time around. She's a painter and a poet, and her husband, a photographer and a writer. Between them, they seem to have got all the arts covered! Please visit her website to see her wonderful work -Anisha's Paintings

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    One Lake, Many Moods

    I took these pictures when we vacationed at a lake house in July. The words are from William B Yeats' poem: The Lake Isle of Innisfree

    I will rise and go now, and go to Innisfree

    And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made

    Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee

    And live alone in the bee-loud glade

    And I shall have some peace there,

    for peace comes dropping slow

    Dropping from the veils of the morning to

    where the cricket sings: There midnight's all aglimmer

    And noon a purple glow

    And evening full of the linnet's wings

    I will arise and go now, for always night and day

    I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore
      while I stand on the roadways, or on the pavements grey
    I hear it in the deep heart's core

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    Write. Pray. Hope.

    I woke up at 5am and couldn't go back to sleep. I was filled with a sense of excitement. I traced it to where it was coming from - it was the story that was writing itself within me. Last night, I went to sleep thinking I should get to the article I want to write for a book that's being put together by the alumni of my alma mater. This morning, as soon as I woke up, it started writing itself, spilling over its own words and sentences, urging me to get up and go put it down on paper.

    After two hours of working on it, I'm still filled with energy, still wanting to write. This is the feeling I want in my prayer - rather than the slightly off-tone, trying-too-hard puja I do in the tiny corner room filled with framed photos of my gods. This feeling, this writing, this enthusiasm are my offerings to God - not necessarily the words themselves, or the story (those seem to come together on their own, from the inside), but the excitement I bring to it, the 'bhava' that brings tears to my eyes, tune to my melody, and strums on my heartstrings.

    And so I figured out what's been missing in my days - and what I could do to bring life back to it. Write.

    But write what? Now I'm done with the article, I'm back to a blank, white paper staring me in the face. I continue to write in my journal of course, and it gives me the continuity I need. It gives voice to my soul, answers to my questions, direction to my days. These pages are my daily prayers, where I pour out my concerns, complaints, confessions, where I retreat, repent, rejoice.

    But what I also want is to write a proper work, a grand odyssey, an ode to God. I want to make an offering that's fitting, not these paltry bits of paper that have barely a beginning, and never an ending. Is that too big an ambition? Am I trying to feed my ego now, not my soul? Will this be an offering that's only fulfilling to me, for how can it be fitting to the Lord who can't be fit into anything, let alone the pages of a book. And yet, something tells me to keep hoping, to keep dreaming that dream, and that might someday end up being my wake up call.

    Saturday, August 6, 2011

    The paradox that perplexes me

    "And yet the very absence I felt so acutely was paradoxically a presence in my life."
    - Karen Armstrong, The Spiral Staircase

    I've been feeling lost for a while now. When I look back at my past few journal entries, when I listen to my own conversations with my family, when I read my emails to my friends, all I seem to be doing is bemoaning the loss of contentment, loss of direction. And instead I feel empty, restless, lost. I feel like a person who suddenly went blind - seeking something, feeling my way around me, trying to touch something; and then feeling frustrated and disappointed that I don't.

    When I read Karen Armstrong's sentence about absence being the paradoxical presence in life, it made sense, it rang true. The restlessness I'm feeling so acutely is what I'm seeking to soothe; the emptiness I'm looking to fill is what I'm so longing for; I need something tangible, something I can touch and see, to make me fulfilled. But God isn't someone I can touch or create. I can only feel him in moments of clarity, some rare moments when I'm awake. I need to be able to accept the fact that he's intangible, non-describable, unattainable, indefinable, un-bottle-able, incomprehensible. He's nothing and everything; he's within me and around me. And just because I can't touch him or see him doesn't mean I should miss him. I need to figure out a way to find those moments of wakefulness and stay awake.

    I used to find it easier to find those moments and get lost in them. But now I realize it wasn't I who found them, but the moments that found me. All that arrogance I had (and didn't even know) about finding those transcendent moments is slowly draining away. I realize that I can't get back those moments if and when I want them; that they were a precious gift.

    And then that makes me wonder - why did I get that gift? Why was I chosen for that blessing? Me, a confused, lost soul, who can seem to do no right? And so I can understand this emptiness within me, the sense of loss, the loss of direction. This emptiness, this absence seems to be the only constant these days, always present. If this is the paradox - of craving after filling it with the Nothing that's God, I have it alright.

    Wednesday, August 3, 2011

    Familiar Footing is kind of Flat

    Coming back from a vacation puts me in a strange state of mind - I'm happy to be back home, to my familiar room, familiar things, to have a nice long shower and a long night's sleep, but it's the next morning now, and I don't want to do the mundane everyday things. I'm questioning everything I normally do without thinking. My steps are slow, my voice is mute, my face unsmiling. Heavy as I feel, I don't think this is a bad thing - I think it's good that I'm able to put pauses into the familiar, question my normality, wonder about the why's, the reason for this routine. Two weeks of living on whim, going with the day's flow, putting down my daily burden was a good way to get away, to get a feel for becoming root-less, feeling more like a bird in flight. (Is this how monks and hermits feel?)
    But after two weeks, I'm ready to put down my roots again, give rest to my wings. The only problem is I don't want to come back to the same roots that I had uprooted 2 weeks ago. Settling into these overgrown heavy roots is unsettling, the way a burden feels heavier when I put it back on my back after putting it down for a while. But what about the old, well-tended roots? Do I let them die!? That makes me feel like a monster.

    And so the story goes, the old familiar struggle continues - worried about looking like a monster versus wanting to do what's right for me, what I want to do versus what I need to do, what my soul needs versus what my conscience says. I'm constantly wondering about the voices I hear, not sure if I'm hearing them right, not sure who they're coming from, and unsure what to do about them. But I guess this is the command for all human existence - to find the true voice within and follow it unquestioningly. Can I recognize it? Will I have the strength and courage to follow it?

    And then I saw this in a Martha Beck book -
    "Begin making choices based on what makes you feel freer and happier, rather than how you think an ideal life should look. It's the process of feeling our way toward happiness, not the realizing of some Platonic ideal, that creates our best lives."

    Simple as this sounds, it is quite profound. Rather than obsessing about some unreachable ideal, focusing on the here and now, and following what feels right, free and happy at this moment is the simple answer to my confusion.