Dominion

 

I was fairly certain that I wasn’t dead. Upright and walking along the banks of the Arkansas River, feeling the sun’s penetrating, prickly heat on the back of my neck, breathing normally; it seemed I was still among the living. But a couple vultures insistently circled overhead as if they were clued in to something I wasn’t. So for fun I actually played with the idea that I had died in some mysterious way and was now experiencing life as a phantom. Could my breathless body be lying among the nearby trees, attracting the vultures? Can a phantom walk upright and breathe?

I sat on a nearby boulder next to the river, pausing to enjoy the beauty of this natural setting. Can a phantom enjoy beauty? If the vultures were correct in their assessment of my status then maybe phantoms could. I gazed at the river. The jewels of sunlight dancing on the surface and the music of it’s flowing motion eased the game of questioning whether I was alive or dead. More than easing the game, the setting actually eased any thinking altogether, quieting my normally restless mind.

Satori, a Buddhist term, is a sudden flash of awakening that temporarily obstructs the mind’s ongoing creation of an individual identity, leaving behind only a vast silence and spaciousness in identity’s passing shadow. In that silent flash of insight, what can be called Oneness with the ground of all being and all it’s countless forms, including any vultures who may be circling above, is said to be experienced.

I still wanted to play. Was Satori the first step in the afterlife journey? Instead of the Arkansas, could this be the River Styx whose banks I was resting on? Joining with the river, my mind at ease, thoughts were now more like passing gnats, easily discarded. Whatever was happening in that moment, life or death, seemed totally fine. Another mind gnat buzzed by, “Life and death are always happening, and it is always totally fine.”

I was falling into Oneness. But, like an unsuspecting river trout biting down on some fisherman’s bait, I was suddenly hooked out of the bliss of oneness and firmly pulled back into the groove of my usual identity as me, an individualized self, separate from everything else. The game abruptly ended. Yes, I was still very much alive. But what had pulled me from fully entering satori? The answer came quick. In the midst of bliss my eyes had landed on a couple discarded beer cans jammed into a crevice of the boulder. “How can people be so ignorant!” I angrily asked the vultures. Anger is a powerful force that keeps one’s individualized identity intact. I guess you can’t be pissed off and awake at the same time.

So there I was, me angry at, and therefore separated from the ignorant person or persons who had unthinkingly left behind their garbage in this beautiful place. The question that had yanked me back from whatever heaven I had been enjoying kept demanding attention. “How can people be so ignorant?” And then I got an answer. Though I’m not sure of its source. Perhaps it came from the vultures. “They share the belief that they have dominion over all things of the earth.” Of course. The Book of Genesis, a manmade, Bronze Age God’s instructions to man, so often used to justify the infliction of horrific ecological destruction in the name of maintaining the hierarchy, amen. It’s OK to leave some cans behind because we rule over the earth. God up there, us on the ground, God’s Word in our hand, bound in genuine leather if we can afford it, wielding our dominion over the rest of the planet. Separation, separation, separation.

I looked up and saw the vultures still circling above me. Another question entered my consciousness, one that I had actually been asked some years before and was now repeated, “Are you nature?” That’s one hell of a question. All the evidence of interdependence, connection, the fact that I need air to breathe, water to drink, food to eat and so on, would seem to indicate that I am dependent on, and therefore a part of nature. But the prevailing belief is that there is a God up there who tells me I am not that which I am destined to have dominion over. And, since I am the boss of this place, it’s OK to litter, to fill the air with filth, to drive the noble orangutan into extinction because palm oil works so well in my processed foods, and so on. God will take care of things. That manmade image of God is the supreme servant of the hierarchy.

I realized that this was some pretty heavy musing over just a couple of discarded beer cans. But still, I wager this idea of mans dominion is at the root of our careless actions that are destroying our lovely home bit by bit. It’s how we roll. “God will take care of things,” is the most profound statement of denial ever uttered.

I returned my gaze to the river, releasing the anger, allowing my attention to empower the river as the river empowered me. The vultures continued to wait patiently for their meal.

“Are you nature?” is a very silly question if you really inquire into it. “Is the sky blue?”, “Does a bear shit in the woods?”. As nature, I knew that the vultures would enjoy their meal sooner or later, whenever that particular wind of my death found me, and that is a good thing, a natural thing. In the meantime I will endeavor to avoid ignorance, which only empowers the perverse idea of dominion over life by an individualized identity believing itself to be separate. And I will also endeavor not to get so pissed off, which is just ignorance celebrating itself.

The vultures didn’t seem to have a thought on the subject one way or another and just continued circling above.

Timothy

 

Timothy hated smoking in the alley. But his wife of 37 years insisted that he refrain from “burning that evil weed” in their tiny Eastside apartment. “Smells like death,” she would say to him. “I’m eighty three years old! What does it matter!” he would say back. But in the end he would always acquiesce, going to the alley and lighting up in the shadow of the perpetually full dumpster outside their home.

It was a cool afternoon, though not cold and Timothy sat on the upturned five gallon bucket he used as a smoking seat. As was his habit, once his Pall Mall was comfortably lit, Timothy gazed at the refuse that littered the ground around the dumpster. People just can’t keep things neat, he thought to himself. Then Timothy spotted the curling pages of a paperback sticking out from underneath the dumpster. Being a fan of Science Fiction novels, Timothy walked over and scooted the book out from the darkness with the edge of his shoe to see if it might be a title he was interested in. He bent and examined the cover. Stains and smears from unknown city sources covered the book, which right away negated any possibility that Timothy would pick it up. But he read the cover anyway. “Who Would You Be Without Your Story?” was the title. And it was written by someone named Byron Katie, an author that Timothy never heard of. It was a strange title by a writer with a strange name and held no interest. He kicked the book back into the darkness.

Timothy sat back down and concentrated on the Pall Mall. But as he sat smoking, the title of the book rose up in his consciousness. “Who Would You Be Without Your Story?” What the hell kind of question is that? he thought to himself.

Normally Timothy didn’t hold on to things in his mind like the title of a discarded book. But the title became a seed in his consciousness as the cigarette smoke curled about him, like a Zen koan planted by a Rinzai monk within the furrows of his brain. “Who Would You Be Without Your Story?”

That evening, comfortably in bed and just drifting off to sleep to the gentle sound of his wife’s deep breathing, the answer to the question posed by Byron Katie on the cover of her book flashed in Timothy’s mind, a brilliant flash of spacious insight. “I would be a man who wouldn’t mind whatever was happening!” he said softly, but still loud enough to wake his wife.

“What?” she asked in a sleepy voice. “Are you okay?”

Timothy looked at his wife’s face. He could barely make out her features in the night. But he could feel every nuance of her beauty in a way that he hadn’t for decades, in a way that required only inner illumination. “I’m fine, just a dream. Go back to sleep.” Timothy leaned over and gave his wife the most precious kiss on her cheek, feeling the deepest connection with her, the deepest gratitude for her presence. And whatever the morning brought, good, bad or mundane, he wouldn’t mind one bit.

Fu-Kiau

I had been told that he was a  holy man, though not a representative of any particular religion. He was called a “Beyonder”. I gathered that meant he was beyond the conceptual limitations of any one particular faith. He had been invited to New Mexico to give a series of teachings on the mysteries of life. I had come to hear him teach and to hopefully have the opportunity to ask a single question, a question that I deeply longed for an answer to.

He sat in a straight back wooden chair and we gathered around him, sitting on the various cushions that were about the floor. He introduced himself. “I am Fu-Kiau,” he said simply. His voice was friendly and welcoming, laced with a deep Central African accent.  He began speaking on a very lofty topic, the underlying power out of which the universe is manifest. He said it was a power that infuses all of life and spoke of the importance of recognizing and embracing that power within ourselves. Despite the deep and complex nature of the topic, he made understanding very accessible. His words were inspiring and it felt like he was speaking from a place of authentic wisdom.

After about two hours he finished his talk and was willing to take questions. A few immediately raised their hands. I didn’t hear what their questions were nor his answers. I was busy trying to clarify in my mind the one question I had come to ask. I decided direct and simple was the best way to go. It was time. I raised my hand.

Fu-Kiau noticed my raised hand. “Yes?” he said, looking and listening deeply.

“Fu-kiau,” I began, “I was hoping you could share with me what you believe the most important spiritual practice is.” In retrospect I see the naive quality of the question. But at the time I felt that I required the teaching of some authority figure to see me through. I desired, more than anything else, for someone to give me that magic formula that would diminish the struggle and resistance that I was experiencing in my movement through life and help me get to the next spiritual level, whatever that meant.

Fu-Kiau gave the question the space of quiet consideration for a moment. Then he answered. “I would have to say that the most important spiritual practice is gratitude.” He broke his gaze with me and chose another person with a question. That was the only answer I was going to get to the one question that I had so dearly wanted answered. Gratitude. I was hoping for more; the most potent prayer or meditation, the most powerful ritual or sacred rite that would smooth over all the rough patches. In all honesty, I was very disappointed.

***

That was over twenty years ago. Fu-Kiau has recently died and I was extremely saddened to hear of his passing. The world has lost a very deep well of Beyonder wisdom. But authentic teaching is not that easily extinguished. Over the last twenty years Fu-Kiau’s answer to my question, which had been so disappointing at first,  has become like a many layered onion.  As I have evolved  I have been moving through the layers, getting closer and closer to the core of his most potent answer.

Lately I have been spontaneously experiencing the deepest feelings of gratitude in the most mundane of places; the grocery story, standing in front of the mail machine at work, places that I am very familiar with and barely gave a second thought to. The one thing these experiences share is an inner silence, a quiet mind. The gratitude is of a deeper nature, a pleasant and at the same time powerful feeling that transcends the usual level of consciousness that I’m familiar with. It is not gratitude expressed in words or thoughts. It is a silent, spacious, fully present feeling of gratitude for every aspect of life as it is, even those aspects that I might otherwise label as painful or negative. It is a full submersion into the “Now”.  I have discovered that gratitude can only be completely experienced where life can only be found, within the present moment. I have discovered that gratitude is actually a type if energetic stance beyond thought, a key to fully inhabiting the present moment, usually obstructed by my constant fascination and identification with stories of life as it was in the past or life as it will be in the future. Gratitude has become a natural result of consciously quieting my mind and inhabiting the “Now”. For me, twenty years later, gratitude has indeed become the most important spiritual practice.

Thank you Fu-Kiau.

Time To Pop

Ernest was very skillful in cultivating the ideal look that would induce a person to “pop”. Of course the timing had to be perfect, the person popping had to be open to it.  But if the look wasn’t just right, more important than the words spoken, the moment would be missed, the popping would not occur. He had been doing this work for more years than most could count, and he was good at it. His look, words and timing were impeccable.

The Guidance was clear that the woman called Sara would stop at the corner of Canal Street and Broadway for a red light in just under a minute. And Ernest made sure he was there in plenty of time for this cosmic turning of the traffic signal. The nights darkness was thwarted by city lights, bathing the corner in artificial contrasts of luminance and shadow. Standing there, Ernest looked like just another down on his luck hard ass, seeking refuge from life’s lack of mercy.

The light changed from green to yellow to red just as the small Kia hatchback approached. Ernest knew that this was Sara. And he knew that Sara’s window would be rolled down. All the pieces, set into motion at the beginning of time, were in place. The Kia stopped at the light and Ernest ran up to the driver, Sara.

 ***

 Sara stopped at the red light. Her mind was preoccupied, mired in thoughts about the meeting she had with her supervisor earlier that day. She had left the meeting worried about making the deadline for the upcoming Nautilus project. She didn’t notice the rough looking man running up to her window until he was two steps away. Panic shot throughout her mind and body, silencing the work related mental ramblings of the previous moment. She froze as he leaned into her car, inches away from her face, looking deeply into her eyes. His look was vacant, a face left numb by the world’s cruelties.  And at the same time his look demonstrated a fullness born from lifetimes of experiences, a look that held a wisdom older than time, a complete acceptance beyond the complexities of life or the mysteries of death. It threatened everything she thought she knew.

“Nighttime sky opens. Infinity cascades down. Don’t blink, you’ll miss it!”  The rough looking man said in the forceful manner of one speaking with total authority. Then he turned and ran down a nearby alley, disappearing.

Sara’s mind was shocked clean of any debris of identity, of any knowings of work, love, or the meaning of life, like a newborn. Sara popped. She struggled to take a breath, the first since the rough looking man appeared out of nowhere. As she breathed in she realized that she was breathing in the greatest understanding that the universe had to offer. As she let the breath slowly out she smiled like the Buddha, sitting in the shade of the Bodhi tree.

Cutting Cloth

In the spirit worlds, sorcery, magic and celestial power dictate the rules. But the drama in those alternate dimensions is not that different from ours in the more mundane dimensions of shopping malls, Honey Boo Boo and corporate takeovers. Pain and struggle seem to find their way into most situations eventually, whether they’re of an etherial, cosmic nature or something more pedestrian. Vicktor, whose powerful sorcery was greatly feared by most, found this out in a most difficult way. His was a typical play for power not earned. Deafening desire, and desire’s inverted twin, aversion, which are really at the crux of a heart’s experience of pain and struggle, drove him.  He would have the Pendant of Essence worn by the elder known simply as The Brotherly One. That pendant was key to the elder’s power. And it could be Vicktor’s if he got his hands on it. And the desire for that power, and the aversion to life without it, was inciting Vicktor’s every move.

 Through multi-layered Machiavellian machinations Vicktor was able to trap The Brotherly One on an isolated mountain top.

 “You didn’t think I had it in me, did you Bro?” Vicktor snickered. “Is it okay if I call you Bro? Just seems easier.” He inflected every syllable with the tone and timbre of a fearless vanquisher.

 “Just do what you’re here to do. Steal what you’re here to steal. Don’t waist my time with your jibber-jabber,” The Brotherly One returned.

 “As you wish.” Vicktor reached out to grab the simple yet commanding moonstone pendant hanging from The Brotherly One’s neck.

 “Too many plans driven by desire and aversion make you stupid,” The Brotherly One said in a surprisingly compassionate way.

 What Vicktor could only describe as a swirling electrical vortex engulfed his outstretched hand, “What is this?” he cried out in shock.

 “The motion of cause and effect,” The Brotherly One said.

 The vortex of energy moved up Vicktor’s arm, around his shoulder and over his head, finally swallowing him whole, smashing his chest with a crushing weight and throwing him far from the mountain top.  It was a turn of events that have become a mythological cliche over the millennia: Man tries to steal celestial power in the form of some magical object, man becomes consumed by some retributive, dynamic force, man is banished to some godawful backwater of the cosmos for all eternity. In this case, the backwater was the planet Earth. More specifically, Saul’s Fabrics  on the Lower Eastside of Manhattan.

 Vicktor regained consciousness, still feeling the crushing pressure on top of his chest. With great effort he was able to open his eyes. He was no longer on the mountain top. The Brotherly One was gone. And a bolt of weighty linen was laying across his chest, pinning him down. Vicktor knew that he had been defeated, The Brotherly One’s power had been too great. All was lost.

“Vicktor! Quit screwing around!” Saul yelled, deeply irritated. “I need you to cut those linen pieces for Jacqueline right away. She’ll be here in an hour!” Saul wondered for the thousandth time why he had hired this sad sack.

 ***

Since he unexpectedly found himself on a beautiful mountain top, The Brotherly One took the opportunity to enjoy a fabulous view.

To Beat A Chicken

Leo had never been able to beat that chicken at tic-tac-toe. But every Friday after work he would stop by the Chinese arcade and try. It was an actual live chicken behind a piece of glass. There was a panel that the chicken could peck at, to make it’s selection of either an X or O, which displayed on a lit up grid. Leo, of course, would make his selections from outside the piece glass as the game progressed. If he won, his prize was a bag of fortune cookies. Seemed an easy thing, beating a chicken at a simple child’s game. But the chicken always won. Though Leo had a feeling that his luck was going to change.

It wasn’t about the bag of fortune cookies, not any more. It was the principle. That damn chicken had done more harm to Leo’s fragile self-esteem in the last six months than all the failed relationships of his entire life combined. Gluttons for punishment always fine the perfect set-up, and this chicken was Leo’s. But he was sure, tonight would be different.

Leo dropped the quarters in the coin box and the chicken went first. House rules, the chicken always got to go first. The chicken pecked an O in the center square. Leo punched in an X above it. The chicken pecked out another O to the left of the first and Leo paused to study the board. That’s when he first saw her reflection shining on the glass.

She wasn’t a traditional beauty by any measure, but there was something… an exquisite authenticity. It sparkled with it’s own form of loveliness that trapped Leo.  He forgot about the chicken and studied her shimmering mirror image. His suddenly shallow breath and pounding heart announced to his brain that he was smitten. He knew that he could be with the woman standing behind him. And somehow he knew that she could be with him. Her reflection was that clear. For the first time in memory a ray of hope found its way inside the burlap sack of loneliness that he had been carrying around, like a bundle of last weeks potatoes.

Just as he was about to turn around and say something, her reflected face changed. What was a simple countenance of curiosity suddenly became one of disgust, turning into extreme compassion. He could see that she only had eyes for the suffering of the chicken, forced to live in a glass box and play tic-tac-toe with assholes all day. In that instant he understood that all was lost. He watched as her reflection vanished. And although he knew it was a mistake, he turned towards the door, watching her wondrous backside exit the premises. It really might have been.

Leo’s heart wasn’t in the game anymore. But he kept playing out of habit. He picked, the chicken pecked, and when the game was through, Leo, for the first time, had won. But it didn’t matter. For months he had been trying to beat that chicken, but tonight it didn’t matter at all. A surly young clerk at the arcade gave him his prize, the bag of fortune cookies. Then Leo left.

Leo opened the bag of fortune cookies and picked one at random. He read the fortune as he munched the stale treat. “You will die alone and poorly dressed,” it read.

“Goddamn chicken,” Leo said to himself.

Bad Poetry

Moth’s eternal star lit flight

through shafts of piercing lunar light.

Midnight donut missing a bite.

Sugary sprinkles ,  glazed delight.

And then to sleep, good night,

good night.

Gina was an incredibly bad poet. Funny thing was…she knew it. Gina had been writing bad poetry  since a child, a good three and a half decades now…all of it crap. She understood it was crap. But for her it was the most joyous crap.  The creative act that gave birth to her bad poems was a succulent and enlivening energy to abide in. It was her church, her meditation, her path, her life.

***

Gina was married once, for a few years. And she loved her husband with a passion that rivaled the sun’s for the planets.  Of course the potent love she carried inspired pages and pages of awful verse. One example:

Bricks austere stacking,

sticks wind whipped cracking,

sea worn sailboats tacking,

and I kiss your lips a smacking.

Yes she truly loved that man, expressing that love every day with paper and pen. And he loved her back, as best he could. But, like dismissing a slice of her soul, he disregarded her poetry as too much time spent on a simple hobby with no real value. He was a silly man who didn’t understand…didn’t realize that he was blind. And his failure to truly see his wife finally cost him one of the most profoundly beautiful women gracing this old watery rock. He could not see her nor could he mold her into his image. In bitter frustration, he eventually left her, completely missing out on what is.

After he left Gina wrote this:

Crusty old Sumac

riddled with age.

Fodder for the fireplace,

I chop it with rage.

What her husband failed to behold was that Gina’s poetry was not a hobby at all, nor anything else so mundane. Gina’s poetry was more like a garden hose. And what she sprayed out upon the earth was nothing less than the potent vivacity of Creation itself! But her husband just couldn’t see it…couldn’t go there. He was caught up in the surface of words, completely unaware of the inspiration that underlined them. And that was truly his tragic loss.

Of course it wasn’t the bad poems in and of themselves that held power, but the energy spawned by the act of writing…Gina’s courting of the muse…that was the heavenly stream splashing from her depths. Gina had the keys, she had passed through the gate and neared the many mansions of the multi-faceted mystery of what is…simply because she trusted that which made her heart sing without reservation and took great care to ensure its aliveness. Her courage and commitment to keep writing bad poetry over the years was enough to make even the driest desert stones get all misty.

The shadowed light of  Being,

crumbly brown leaf once green,

my face remains unseen,

though my reflection lingers.

Really crap. And a lesson for us all. Good on ya’ Gina girl!