I went to heaven

(I continue to be on sick leave from my broken arm.  Some combination of solitude, newly living in the country with a wonderful housemate, and all the love and support my friends have been pouring out on me seems to have me reflecting on my spiritual life.  Here’s part of the story.)

My early life was quite religious, but never spiritual.  My family life was loaded with trauma and my Catholic schooling was populated with a vengeful God – not a God of love, not a channel for transcendence.

Using marijuana in college (late 60’s) and taking several acid trips in grad school, I started to dismantle my ego.  Each acid trip started with an experience of such intense oneness that I just wanted to stay there – and was followed by my ego fighting back and leading me to terrifying dark places.

Also in graduate school I was exposed to Eastern religion. I was initiated into Transcendental Meditation and that first initiation took me to heaven – the freedom from the ego that I felt with acid, with none of the chaos or loss of control.  But, while I had many more nice experiences during my two years of TM meditation, I never went to heaven again.

Si Chinmoy took me to heaven.  I read Be Here Now by Ram Das (didn’t we all?) and came away from that reading really wanting a teacher.  I never had any sense that the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of TM might be my teacher, but now I was ready for one.  I was living in upstate New York, but my wife and I had taken jobs in Nova Scotia.  Two weeks before we moved, I went to a yoga retreat at a nearby spiritual center that I had never visited.  I had heard that Ken Pillar, the director of the center, had a reputation as a psychic.  When I walked into the center for the first time, Ken called to me across a large room, “You’re going on a long tip – you’re going to meet your teacher.”

About a month after moving near Amherst Nova Scotia (we bought a little farm house on the Bay of Fundy 20 miles from our jobs in Asheville and in the neighboring Spring Hill), I was looking at a bulletin board in town.  It was devoid of any reference to personal growth, consciousness or Eastern religion.  Except for one poster for the Halifax Sri Chinmoy Meditation Center: “Open meditation Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Sunday mornings at 10 a.m.  No charge.”

Halifax was about three hours from Amherst.  I called the number on the poster and spoke with a very warm and friendly young man named Jim.  We arranged that I would leave work an hour early the next Wednesday and drive to Halifax, then stay overnight in a guest room at the center and drive back to Amherst the next morning before work.

That next Wednesday I was filled with happy anticipation: I was maybe on the path to meet my teacher!  I understood from Jim that Sri Chinmoy lived full-time in New York City (the Jamaica neighborhood in Queens).  It was a long trip from Halifax, but the “disciples” – which the committed students called themselves –  and other students would frequently pile in a car (lots of drivers) and drive the thirteen hours to New York, so there wold be plenty of opportunity to see “Guru”.  None of this talk of disciples or guru fazed me: I wanted a guru and I was ready to be a disciple.

srichinmoycloseup

Sri Chinmoy

I arrived at the meditation center about 15 minutes early and had some animated chatter with Jim and Harvey, who lived at the center, and about eight other people.  I was told that not all of them were disciples, that there was a special process you went through to become one – and that male disciples were dressed in crisply pressed white shirt and pants, and women in saris.  None of this caused even a bump for me.  I was picturing myself in those white shirts and pants.

Jim explained that Sri Chinmoy’s path followed a Hindu lineage called bhakti yoga – the yoga of love, devotion, and surrender.  This lineage was strong in the part of Bengal where Sri Chinmoy was born, including the Sri Aurobindo ashram where he grew up. The way you meditated was to sit (everybody sat in straight-backed chairs) and look at a table with a tall lighted candle and a picture of the guru in his highest meditation.  You could meditate on the candle flame or the picture.  Because, in the picture, Guru was looking at the divine – the Supreme, our divine father – looking at him could take you there.

Sri Chinmoy meditates

Sri Chinmoy looking at God

When the meditation began, I had a few minutes of restlessness, then got quiet inside.  After two years of TM, 20 minutes twice a day, I did have some skill at quieting my mind.  But I was not prepared for what came next: I went back to heaven!  That experience of transcendence that I had experienced once only in two years of TM was right here again – and if anything even stronger.  I’m not going to try to describe how happy I was.

That night I went to bed filled with peace and happiness.  Even though I was sleeping in a strange place, I slipped easily into sleep – and all night long I had terrifying dreams of a strange Indian guy who was trying to steal my mind! In the morning, I dressed quietly and slipped down the hall to where my shoes would be waiting by the front door – and I could escape.  When I tiptoed past Jim’s room, he called out, “John!” “Yeah.”  “Do you want to meditate?”  “Er, uh, sure.”  I don’t remember what went through my mind as I prepared to meditate.  What I remember with extraordinary vividness is that as my breathing quieted and my body got peaceful and I looked at the picture of  the guru, I went right back to heaven again!

This experience of visiting heaven repeated many times over the next three years on the Sri Chinmoy path – and very seldom in the forty years since I left it.  I’ve had many wonderful experiences, but not that.  As my friend Tom Kilby said to me tonight when I described some of this to him, “Dude, you’ve been to heaven!  What’s up now?  Why are you not going there?”  In this time of solitude and no work and all this love and support flooding in to me, I think I am meant to explore this question.

 

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You are so beautiful

I’m on the shelf – injured, out of work.  It’s meant to be a time of reflection.  My minister, who prizes my  poetry, threw down the gauntlet: “Write a poem about yourself.”  (My therapist had given me the same assignment a half-dozen times – “But I wasn’t out of work then, Lorrie!”) My last blog post “The miracle of the surgery scheduling” is all about being loved and protected – and that story keeps making me cry.  My friend Kimberly  read that post and left a comment: “You are so loved and protected every minute of the day. We all love you Majo!” I sent that to my therapist, who I am scheduled to see on Tuesday, along with this thought from me: “I think I was put here to discover the truth of that. If realizing that the OR scheduler saved a precious slot for me makes me cry every time, then realizing how totally loved I am – what will that do?”  I’m meant to get my hands around this. And so I wrote a poem.  It poured out as fast as I could type it.  It came from somewhere else – certainly not from my limited mind. Some of it may speak to you. 

You Are So Beautiful
When I was growing up, it was not safe to be good
I was born nine years into my parents’ marriage
A miracle baby, when they had almost given up
I was adored – a little God
My karma was set – I was meant to be worshipped
Then 16 months later my little brother was born
I was the miracle child – the prince
And he was, “Oh, he’s nice too”
And thus my real life path was set
I am meant to be wonderful
But not to get caught at it
By someone who will be hurt by it

Then, after my father died
My mother remarried
A man who hated me for being the apple of her eye
My own father’s jealousy was softened by his pride in me
I was his son
My stepfather not only hated me
He hated my mother for loving me
And so I was the cause of so much pain between them
Not just me – my goodness
My goodness caused pain
My goodness was a bad thing

The nuns taught us about the sin of pride
To like yourself is a bad thing

I have spun several theories about why in college
I loved my fraternity so much
Awesome parties, drinking was a lot of fun
The frat drew pretty girls
The guys in this particular fraternity
Were serious students, very smart, very funny
I have, over the years, spun several theories
But now, in this moment, I go to the heart of it:
I liked that fraternity
Because those guys liked themselves
And so they liked me
And they were a kind of community
When I shined in academics
Or in running track – really, it was a few years ago
I reflected well on them
It was safe to be good

My friend Kate the other night
Was journaling on her shadow
She asked me “What’s the opposite of jealousy?”
I said oneness
I learned it from Sri Chinmoy
My old spiritual teacher
When we would be jealous of the San Franciso meditation center
So loaded with musical talent
He said, “You are separating yourself
From them – that’s the big mistake.
Feel your oneness with them.”

And now at Jubilee
People love me so much
Appreciate my poetry so much
But they appreciate me
Because my poetry is so personal
I show so much shadow in my poetry
Poke so much fun at myself
I think people get it that
I’m not all full of myself
But still it’s safe to like myself
When I need a fix
I’ll go to the prayer wall, to Ruth Stephens
She’ll say, “We all love you so much”
It’s a community – it’s about us
It’s like a fraternity on steroids
Or really on grace
It’s why we like the musicians and the other artists
When they shine – the Paulas, the Delias, the Daniels, the Shems, the Jim Taylors, the Brian Claflins
Then we shine

I have this housemate Lucy who clearly is amazing in many ways
I told her so – “You really are amazing”
She admitted it – “I think I really am amazing”
It was thrilling – we have it out in the open, not hidden
If she knows that she’s amazing
Then I don’t have to hide it that I’m amazing
She won’t hate me for it
She loves me for it
One thing on which we always seem to agree
We each think the other is amazing

Yesterday at Jubilee
We sang to a newly baptized little boy
As his parents carried him around the room
For us to adore him
The Joe Cocker song
“You are so beautiful”
Did I resent him for being adored?
No, I got really happy!
It happens most every time
Baptisms are the best!
I think for mostly all of us
Why do we not get jealous of these little babes?
There is some magic here
Is it their innocence, their vulnerability?
Is it the active or latent parent in each of us
When we see this little child so deeply loved
We feel loved too
They called the child Redeemer
And so it is – we are redeemed.

On the shelf

I’m on the shelf.

Two weeks ago today, I fell in my dark bedroom and shattered the radius bone of my left arm where it connects to my wrist.  It was surgically repaired five days ago – one big metal plate and five screws.

plate

one big plate

scews

5 screws

I have, pretty obviously, been out of work for the last two weeks – the pain in that arm is starting to lighten up, but for the first week any contact with that arm hurt like hell.  And while grocery store cashiering is not super-physical, it definitely involves using both hands.

Lucy the CNA.  A few days after my accident, which occurred in the middle of the night, I tried to reconstruct the events, especially as regards my new housemate Lucy.  “Did Lucy see me naked?”  At first I did not have an answer to this question, but then some of the memories started to fill in.  In the country pitch dark, in my new – three weeks -bedroom, I attempted to sit on the side of my bed, missed and crashed down on my bracing arm.  I emitted a scream that must have frightened my little dog, peacefully ensconced at her usual lower corner of the bed.  I then proceeded to get dressed, wincing and grunting and swearing.  Seeing how much every impact with that wrist hurt after it was wrapped in the ER, I don’t know how I managed to get dressed.  I think I was highly motivated.

So, when I walked to the other end of the house, knocked on Lucy’s door and called “Lucy…I have to go to the hospital.”, I was fully dressed.  And that has been a guiding principle in my convalescence here: “Lucy shall not see me naked.” This principle got trickier when she helped me shower.  The first challenge was figuring out the “Jim-Dandy Chinese Cast Protector” that I bought at the CVS.  cast protectorLucy immediately established herself as more technical than me, figuring out the 12 teeny-tiny photos and to-me non-user-friendly text.

Next we needed to wrap the bum arm in the protector, which involved unwrapping me first.  I managed to hold up my towel with Lucy seeing no more than my fat belly, which was humiliating enough.  Lucy actually has work history as a CNA, so theoretically none of this should be a problem.  But she ain’t my CNA and for me we have been teetering right on the edge of a problem.

Snowed in.  Today it’s not just me off from work – it’s everyone!  These snow days feel like forgiveness.  I’m not the one who isn’t working – it’s a day that’s all about not working.  And these are days for writing.  Thursday I wrote two poems – a birthday poem for my son and one to honor my friend Amanda.  Yesterday I wrote a poem for a young woman that was commissioned for charity at my church.  This has all felt like amazing abundance – truly a gift.snow 1snow 2snow 3

Today, because I have the whole day on my hands and we can’t get out, you all get this. Actually because me and my birthday buddy Matt – also in Asheville – both have off.  Matt and I met in  a writing class with our friend Nina Hart and kind of stand for writing for each other.  So when I saw on Facebook this morning that it’s his birthday, right after I wished him a happy birthday, I asked if he was writing.  Which could be mean if he’s not, but I don’t have the moral high ground  – I haven’t (before just now) written anything for this blog for two weeks.  So that’s just what happened: he replied that he was writing some, not enough and I threw down the gauntlet: “We’re both snowed in, right?  Let’s write something.”  It’s working for me – I hope it’s working for him.

There we go,  my new blog post.  It worked for me – I hope it worked for you.

Some things I’m not grateful for….

Thanksgiving 2015

There are a lot of things that I’m not grateful for.
I’m not grateful for all the terrible things going on on the world stage
Although that makes me even more grateful for my life
And it makes me think about and care about
People in the world who I might never have thought about otherwise

Well I’m not grateful for the knee replacement they say I need.
Though it does make me even more appreciate
Some of the things I right now can’t do
Like Tae Kwon Do
And it’s making me think about
What other kinds of work I might want to do.
That would not have me on my feet for eight hours in a shift

I’m not grateful for bipolar disorder
Every seven to ten days
Throwing me into the dark and cold
Where I can hold on to nothing
That the day before I loved
About myself and about life.
But my new meds seem to be helping some
And I am clearer all the time
That reaching out to my brothers and sisters
With this terrible disease
And writing and teaching about it
For those who love us or have to deal with us
Is my life’s work.

I’m not grateful about not seeing you people very often
Except it does make me appreciate you even more
And I’m actually probably as busy as you are – or more when I’m up
Busy and unavailable when I’m up
Flat on the floor and unavailable when I’m down
OK, us not seeing each other is not all your doing
And, in the here and now, here we are

So, I’m not grateful for er-r-r uh, a lot of things
I’m kind of good at not being grateful
So I have to learn how to love
All the players on the world stage
Even those who are doing heinous things
I’ve got to love my knee doctor and Lucille
And you people
And myself when I’m not being grateful

I’ve got to love myself no matter what
Gratitude will come in spurts
I will learn it over the whole course of my life
And I guess I can be grateful
That we have a day like now
A season like now
That encourages us to go to that place

So I’m going to be grateful for this present moment
Radiating out as best I can
In all directions
I’ll do it the best I can, for as long as I can
And ask some benevolent spirit
To give me a heads-up
When I return to whining.

Crying behind the cash register

Last weekend I attended a grief workshop.  Sobonfu Some brings African traditions to the West to help us move past our collective and individual suppression of our grief.  She says, “There is a deep longing among people in the West to connect with something bigger — with community and spirit. People know there is something missing in their lives, and believe that the rituals and ancient ways of the village offer some answers.”

Her website says:

“Destined from birth to teach the ancient wisdom, ritual and practices of her ancestors to those in the West, Sobonfu, whose name means ‘keeper of the rituals’ travels the world on a healing mission – sharing the rich spiritual life and culture of her native land Burkina Faso, which ranks as one of the world’s poorest countries yet one of the richest in spiritual life and custom.

“Recognized by the village elders as possessing special gifts from birth, Sobonfu’s destiny was foretold before her birth, as is the custom of the Dagara Tribe of Burkina Faso, and was fostered by early education in ritual and initiation in preparation for her life’s work. ‘My work is really a journey in self discovery and in building community through rituals,’ says Sobonfu. Dagara rituals involve healing and preparing the mind, body, spirit and soul to receive the spirituality that is all around us. ‘It is always challenging to bring the spiritual into the material world, but it is one of the only ways we can put people back in touch with the earth and their inner values.'”

The weekend workshop consisted primarily of an extended ritual to support the 120 of us in releasing grief that perhaps was a reaction to a recent loss, but more typically had accumulated over years from a variety of losses and could be a reaction to international and global pain as well as personal.  The village that here came together to support us in this release was mostly strangers, but still very quickly came to offer a lot of genuine support.

grief hug

It takes a village to heal a grief.

 

When early in the workshop it was my turn to announce what losses I wanted to offer for healing, I said that it was the death of my best buddy Monty last January and the recurring loss every seven to ten days of all my good feelings – about myself , my life and life itself – when my depression comes rolling in.

I realized just a few minutes after my turn that the other loss I would offer for healing is the very loss of my ability to deeply feel and release my grief.  Once I was very good at surrendering to tears, having reclaimed this ability through personal growth experiences in my mid-twenties and on.  But depression itself has crushed some of this spontaneous and natural release.  And even my psychiatrists have acknowledged that the mood stabilizers that I take to even out my ups and downs also tend to dampen all my feelings.  It’s a tough call, but I continue to opt for the reduction in emotional pain that the meds afford me.

grief-counseling

I haven’t cried over Monty yet. I guess it will happen when it’s meant to – but I also believe that surrounding myself with support can help to get at it.

When I am manic, I am more able to connect with feelings and to release them  than when I am depressed. I was depressed at the workshop and predictably stayed fairly frozen right through from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon – though there were moments when it felt like something might be moving within me.  On and off, touched by someone else’s grief, I felt spontaneous shudders roll through my body.  When I would take my turns – with another ten to twenty people in various stages of deep breathing, wailing and screaming – to approach the grief altar (you chose whether to do this, how often and for how long), I progressively got more aggressive about also screaming and loudly crying, though my crying was without tears and my screaming felt hollow and without connection to genuine feeling.

On Monday, the day after the workshop, I was inclined to say that nothing  meaningful had gone on for me there.  But I noticed on and off through the day, in the middle of a kind of typical depression, waves of genuine sadness.  I felt like crying, for no reason that I could lay my hands on.  I was nowhere near actually crying, but I felt some of the feelings that might lead one to cry.  If I was not depressed and not behind the cash register, I might actually have cried.

This morning I learned in an email from my close friend Byron that his son-in-law Phil has been diagnosed as having “terminal cancer”.  I believe that I have never met this man.  His wife Sarah, my friend’s stepdaughter since her late teens, I have probably not seen for 20 years or more.  But I felt a genuine fondness towards her after just a couple of meetings back then – and certainly they and their three children, all still young, are an important part of Byron’s life.

grief, bench

My brother is still very much alive, but every day his cancer threatens him and his family with the spectre of his absence.

But, still depressed, I was unprepared to have such a visceral response to the news of Phil’s cancer.  I felt really sad for Phil, his wife Sarah, their three kids, Sarah’s mother Nancy, and Byron.  When I started to launch into an email back to Byron, I said to myself, “You just sit here and feel this for a minute.”  And so I did.

Then I decided, for whatever reason, that writing this post would keep me closer to the feelings. I could follow it by writing to Byron.  There’s a risk that writing would drive me up into my head and lose the visceral connection, but so far – as I go back to connect within – I still feel some shudders and seem to not have lost the thread of my genuine feelings. It’s feeling like writing is really helping me to process the feelings, is keeping them real for me.

Now I will let go of writing, will go back to just feeling the feelings – for as long as that feels alive for me – then probably write the email to Byron.  And I will bless myself and my grief, which now seems to include some people who I had not previously considered to be part of my family, but now do.

grief, swim

Did reading this stir in you any feelings for this family, whom you really do not know, or about any people closer to you (and including you) who are experiencing illness, loss or pain? It’s OK to feel it, to find somebody to talk to about it, to describe it in a comment here.  It’s all part of staying alive.

 

 

 

How much do you want it?

I have played around with lots of theories about why I have not been writing on my blog, but they all really boil down to one factor: I haven’t wanted it enough.  Sure, it’s true that I’ve been depressed, but there have been other times that I have been depressed and still kept writing. It’s true that I’m tired at the end of the day, but that doesn’t explain it – if I wanted it enough I would power through the tiredness.  It’s true that when I’m manic I get all kind of scrambled: I generate too many ideas and can’t pull them all together into an intelligible post.

I’ve got to want writing more.  I’ve got to see it as super-important.  I’ve got to get how central it is to my identity, my life purpose.  I’ve got to really make the connection between not writing and depression.  When I don’t write, I’m more depressed.  It’s very circular: I don’t write because I’m depressed and then I’m more depressed. I’ve got to break the cycle.

It’s very parallel to what goes on for me with Tae Kwon Do.  I use some of those same arguments for why I don’t go to Tae Kwon Do, but then I get more depressed.  And Tae Kwon Do itself can be developing the qualities I need to push past my limitations and write.  When I had been practicing for just a couple of weeks, I had a little internal crisis about this practice.  “Why am I practicing such a hard, yang art? I need to be doing something soft and flowing like Tai Chi.”  But the answer came back loud and clear.  “There’s some shit in your life that needs kicking – so learn how to kick some shit.”  Depression rolls over me – completely takes me over.  I’ve got to learn better skills for fighting back. And these skills for fighting back can help me harness my wanting to write, can help me to push past the resistance – the depression, the tiredness, the manic scrambledness.  So Tae Kwon Do can very directly lead not just to the regular benefits of Tae Kwon Do, which are many, but can lead very directly to more writing – I need to remember that.

The rub comes when I get home at the end of my day with stuff to write.  I’m tired.  I may be depressed – or maybe I’m manic and scattered.  I can do some Tae Kwon Do to ground and energize myself.  So many things do one or the other – this can do both.  I don’t have to do much to get out of my head and into my body.  Today I resolved to learn my new form one movement at a time.  Five minutes.  Less.

At this moment, I’m very clear how much I want it.  At this moment, I’m tired from work and from a long day: up very early, then work until 7:30.  I may be manic – after about 11 days clearly depressed, today I seem more manic than depressed.  But so far I sure am not very manic.  My ideas seem to be coming out pretty clear.  Well, you be the judge.

Come Ride With Me 2

Today I was part of the third and final video conference for the Shine Expansive online creativity and life purpose workshop I have been participating in for the month of October.  I was great out of the starting gate in this course – right up to writing the “Come Speak To Me Of Love” poem on Day 7 – then I promptly fell apart in my participation in the workshop.  I was depressed – I fell apart everywhere.  I even went 10 days without going to Tae Kwon Do.  And I haven’t been writing here (that’s been going on longer and there’s got to be more to it).

So I arrived at our conference today feeling behind the eight ball. (I had quickly scanned two weeks’ worth of Shine materials in advance of performing my improv poem – Wednesday’s post here – then done nothing since.)  I saw Jessica, our instructor, at church on Sunday and confessed what she already suspected from my lack of participation on the online forum that is one element of the Shine.  She said the last three days of the workshop would be the big finish and that she was encouraging everybody, regardless of how far “behind” they were, to go through the last three days together. I was feeling like so much of a loser in regard to the workshop that I wasn’t ready to commit, but did tuck away her invitation for considering.

On Wednesday, I scanned the assignment for the day, then did get on the conference.  And pretty quickly, the depression that has been dogging me for ten days went to work on me.  I was convinced that, having participated so poorly in the course, I had no business asking for attention on this call – so I stayed on the sidelines for the first 2/3 of the time.  And, reviewing my life from the sidelines, I got to see how this depressive “You don’t belong here” voice torments me in many areas of my life when I’m depressed: at church, on the dance floor (very much a communal activity in the Asheville Movement Collective), in my household, in my depression and bipolar support group (of all the crazy places to not feel like I belong).

Seeing how tormented I tend to be when I’m depressed, I pushed back my reluctance and the next time the floor was open for someone to solicit Jessica’s consultation I raised my hand.  And we did some terrific work together:

  • With her support, I backed off some from the vision I announced in my “Come Talk To Me Of Love” poem, where I would no longer let depression drive my car.  There is so much history around this and the pull of my biochemistry is so strong that sometimes depression is going to take over.
  • What I can do, however, is to monitor very closely its behavior, and when it gets too destructive – torments me too painfully – bump it back in the passenger seat.  Some of the ways I can do this are
    • to write a blog post – or, if that’s too much of a stretch, at least organize my notes for a post (from the liittle spiral pad where I enter these notes at work) or at the very least review some of these notes
    •  to practice my Tae Kwon Do – or if that’s too much of a stretch read or watch some videos on our center’s Facebook page.
  • When depression is having its way with me at work, I can
    • pull out my little pad and start capturing notes from my encounters at the cash register – there is pretty much always something there.
    • I can find things to appreciate about my customers and co-workers.  This comes easily and naturally when I am up, but is difficult when I am down – when I am more likely to find fault with everyone around me.  Or I will judge them as lots better than me – more attractive, more successful, etc.  In this case, I can reach for ways we are alike – maybe just our common humanity, that we both have our struggles, heartaches, etc.

Today I have already had some success in this regard. When depression started to take over the driver’s seat:

  • I cued up the website with my Tae Kwon Do videos and practiced my current form.  When trying to learn from the video got too frustrating, I settled for learning one new move and then shifted to watching a video from the Facebook page – an interview with one of the other students whom I like quite a lot.  This made me feel good.
  • I’ve been writing this blog post, harvesting my notes from the conference call yesterday.

As with any positive new habit, success with these tactics will probably come and go.  I will probably need to develop some cues to remind me to do them.  When you see me – or with an email (my address is at the bottom of the right column) – feel free, actually encouraged, to ask me how it’s going.