When you gather people together for a feast, says Barry Boyce, if you set the time and the table, the food, and the accouterments just right, it can bring grace.
Several years ago I had the good fortune to visit the refectory (dining hall) of the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan, which houses Leonardo da Vinci’s "The Last Supper." The original fresco is naturally more striking than the crushed velvet versions found in many truck stop gift shops. It transcends the cartoonish image that we hold in our minds based on seeing so many reproductions.
To my eyes, the most noticeable thing about the painting is not its divinity but its earthiness, its everyday humanity. People are eating. In fact the recent restoration of the fragile work revealed more elements from the banquet table than had previously been seen: a platter of fish, sparkling wine glasses, finger bowls, an orange, a roll.
The celebrants are shown taking part in a sacrament, a sacred ritual, something that binds human beings together. The idea of sacrament that I grew up with was something held apart from every day life, something possessed and doled out by a priesthood, and therefore it had no direct influence on daily life. The last supper and so many other stories were fairy tales that bore no relation to the evening meal.
The sacred existed in a vault, not in the street. As time progressed and the logics I was given for taking part grew threadbare, rites and rituals seemed to become completely emptied of their connection to human life, to become mere repetition without the spark of newness, the faces of the participants drawn and bored. Rituals are vital to human life, but they all too easily are sapped of their vitality, when they become precious curiosities. Today, many of us are inheriting or borrowing rituals from other cultures and traditions, but it is the essential nature of ritual—the sanctifying of our experience—that we must pay closest attention to. New rituals can become as empty as those we have discarded or those ritualistic aspects of everyday life that we have chosen to neglect.
"A visible form of invisible grace" is the first definition of "sacrament" offered by the American Heritage Dictionary. If we understand grace as the innate goodness of human beings, we can see the sacramental possibilities of everyday life. When you gather people together for a feast, if you set the time and the table, the food, and the accouterments just right, it can bring grace.
A professor I studied with in college, Henry Johnstone, taught me more in the meals we took together than in any other context. In those meals, I learned the art of conversation. There was a kind of light talk that accompanied a pre-meal drink, then a focused conversation, an involved give-and-take that culminated at the end of the meal. If you began to speed too far ahead, to get distracted, the food brought you back. Dessert and coffee allowed for more sublime reflection, a slow pace in keeping with the satiation one felt at that point. The pace was set by the activity, not by the clock. A mere lecture in a classroom could not allow for this visible manifestation of invisible grace. It provided an enchanting type of learning, something that transcended books and tests.
In the 1987 Danish film by Gabriel Axel, Babette’s Feast (derived from an Isak Denisson short story originally published in the Ladies Home Journal), the French housekeeper Babette completely charms the members of a small Lutheran sect in remote Denmark with a sumptuous multi-course feast, and undermines their austerity. This sacredly profane ritual of dining allows them to rediscover themselves. Likewise, in Scott Campbell and Stanley Tucci’s Big Night, the two Italian brothers, Primo and Secundo, invite many friends to a feast built around a meticulously prepared torta rustica. Each of the guests becomes fully themselves. They laugh. They cry. They let go.
It is often the curse of human life to believe that the defining moment awaits us in the future, a simultaneously self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecy. It gives us a false sense of time, the feeling that we’re getting somewhere. It is probably more true that life consists of a continual series of ritual, rites, even sacraments that we conduct. Perhaps one of the great marks of dignified human life is to treat those rituals with care, respect and attention to detail. The haphazard chase that life has often become battles with our rituals. Too many meals are taken on the run, barely tasted. Friends’ children are born with little participation from us. People die and are unceremoniously whisked away. We don’t sit down with our family and our friends often enough.
The organic patterns of life provide us with the chances to find grace, right here in the life that we are living now. That is the beauty and poignancy of ritual, when it is more than going through the motions in order to get on with the real serious business of our lives. Every supper is the last supper from the point of view of now.
"Fixing and helping create a distance between people, but we cannot serve at a distance. We canonly serve that to which we are profoundly connected."
Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.
Service rests on the premise that the nature of life is sacred, that life is a holy mystery which has an unknown purpose. When we serve, we know that we belong to life and to that purpose. From the perspective of service, we are all connected: All suffering is like my suffering and all joy is like my joy. The impulse to serve emerges naturally and inevitably from this way of seeing.
Serving is different from helping. Helping is not a relationship between equals. A helper may see others as weaker than they are, needier than they are, and people often feel this inequality. The danger in helping is that we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity or even wholeness.
When we help, we become aware of our own strength. But when we serve, we don’t serve with our strength; we serve with ourselves, and we draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve; our wounds serve; even our darkness can serve. My pain is the source of my compassion; my woundedness is the key to my empathy.
Serving makes us aware of our wholeness and its power. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals: our service strengthens us as well as others. Fixing and helping are draining, and over time we may burn out, but service is renewing. When we serve, our work itself will renew us. In helping we may find a sense of satisfaction; in serving we find a sense of gratitude.
Harry, an emergency physician, tells a story about discovering this. One evening on his shift in a busy emergency room, a woman was brought in about to give birth. When he examined her, Harry realized immediately that her obstetrician would not be able to get there in time and he was going to deliver this baby himself. Harry likes the technical challenge of delivering babies, and he was pleased. The team swung into action, one nurse hastily opening the instrument packs and two others standing at the foot of the table on either side of Harry, supporting the woman’s legs on their shoulders and murmuring reassurance. The baby was born almost immediately.
While the infant was still attached to her mother, Harry laid her along his left forearm. Holding the back of her head in his left hand, he took a suction bulb in his right and began to clear her mouth and nose of mucous. Suddenly, the baby opened her eyes and looked directly at him. In that instant, Harry stepped past all of his training and realized a very simple thing: that he was the first human being this baby girl had ever seen. He felt his heart go out to her in welcome from all people everywhere, and tears came to his eyes.
Harry has delivered hundreds of babies, and has always enjoyed the excitement of making rapid decisions and testing his own competency. But he says that he had never let himself experience the meaning of what he was doing before, or recognize what he was serving with his expertise. In that flash of recognition he felt years of cynicism and fatigue fall away and remembered why he had chosen this work in the first place. All his hard work and personal sacrifice suddenly seemed to him to be worth it.
He feels now that, in a certain sense, this was the first baby he ever delivered. In the past he had been preoccupied with his expertise, assessing and responding to needs and dangers. He had been there many times as an expert, but never before as a human being. He wonders how many other such moments of connection to life he has missed. He suspects there have been many.
As Harry discovered, serving is different from fixing. In fixing, we see others as broken, and respond to this perception with our expertise. Fixers trust their own expertise but may not see the wholeness in another person or trust the integrity of the life in them. When we serve we see and trust that wholeness. We respond to it and collaborate with it. And when we see the wholeness in another, we strengthen it. They may then be able to see it for themselves for the first time.
One woman who served me profoundly is probably unaware of the difference she made in my life. In fact, I do not even know her last name and I am sure she has long forgotten mine.
At twenty-nine, because of Crohn’s Disease, much of my intestine was removed surgically and I was left with an ileostomy. A loop of bowel opens on my abdomen and an ingeniously designed plastic appliance which I remove and replace every few days covers it. Not an easy thing for a young woman to live with, and I was not at all sure that I would be able to do this. While this surgery had given me back much of my vitality, the appliance and the profound change in my body made me feel hopelessly different, permanently shut out of the world of femininity and elegance.
At the beginning, before I could change my appliance myself, it was changed for me by nurse specialists called enterostomal therapists. These white-coated experts were women my own age. They would enter my hospital room, put on an apron, a mask and gloves, and then remove and replace my appliance. The task completed, they would strip off all their protective clothing. Then they would carefully wash their hands. This elaborate ritual made it harder for me. I felt shamed.
One day a woman I had never met before came to do this task. It was late in the day and she was dressed not in a white coat but in a silk dress, heels and stockings. She looked as if she was about to meet someone for dinner. In a friendly way she told me her first name and asked if I wished to have my ileostomy changed. When I nodded, she pulled back my covers, produced a new appliance, and in the most simple and natural way imaginable removed my old one and replaced it, without putting on gloves. I remember watching her hands. She had washed them carefully before she touched me. They were soft and gentle and beautifully cared for. She was wearing a pale pink nail polish and her delicate rings were gold.
At first, I was stunned by this break in professional procedure. But as she laughed and spoke with me in the most ordinary and easy way, I suddenly felt a great wave of unsuspected strength come up from someplace deep in me, and I knew without the slightest doubt that I could do this. I could find a way. It was going to be all right.
I doubt that she ever knew what her willingness to touch me in such a natural way meant to me. In ten minutes she not only tended my body, but healed my wounds. What is most professional is not always what best serves and strengthens the wholeness in others. Fixing and helping create a distance between people, an experience of difference. We cannot serve at a distance. We can only serve that to which we are profoundly connected, that which we are willing to touch. Fixing and helping are strategies to repair life. We serve life not because it is broken but because it is holy.
Serving requires us to know that our humanity is more powerful than our expertise. In forty-five years of chronic illness I have been helped by a great number of people, and fixed by a great many others who did not recognize my wholeness. All that fixing and helping left me wounded in some important and fundamental ways. Only service heals.
Service is not an experience of strength or expertise; service is an experience of mystery, surrender and awe. Helpers and fixers feel causal. Servers may experience from time to time a sense of being used by larger unknown forces. Those who serve have traded a sense of mastery for an experience of mystery, and in doing so have transformed their work and their lives into practice.
Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Associate Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. Medical School and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She is author of the bestseller, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal.
Helping, Fixing or Serving?, Rachel Naomi Remen, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.
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"After fifteen years of radical activity, something broke up inside me. I saw no political reality in any part of the world that I could embrace."
In 1969, at the age of 17, I was arrested with other anarchists and accused of a bloody attack on a bank in Milan. We were innocent, but it took years and years of hard work and the commitment of many people to persuade the judges and public that the bombs had not been set by us. It was during a student demonstration in 1968 that I had bought an anarchist magazine. A few days later, I visited the magazine’s offices to ask for more information on the anarchist movement. Soon after, at the end of an angry discussion, my father said to me in a hurt and critical voice, "So you’re an anarchist!" I started going into poor neighborhoods several afternoons a week for after-school activities with children. Then at five o’clock we’d visit construction sites to talk to the workers as they left the job. At home, although the situation with my family was getting worse, we’d discuss major international issues and talk about our aspirations for a world where everyone was free and equal—"with no God, no state, no servants, no masters." Fearing a radical turn to the right, even the creation of a fascist regime like the one in Greece at that time, many Italians—and not just those of my generation—were turning to the use of weapons. On December 14, 1969, I was arrested together with other anarchists, accused of attacking a bank in Milan two days earlier and planting bombs in Rome. My first imprisonment lasted three years. After three long days of questioning, just before entering jail for two months of isolation, I found out that one of my comrades, Giuseppe Pinelli, had "committed suicide" by jumping from a window in Milan’s police headquarters. After that first three-year confinement, I was arrested again and again. In 1971, a jailbreak attempt by inmates in my prison turned into a revolt. Though I had been locked in my cell the entire time, I was considered the instigator. There were more violent encounters with the authorities and more jail sentences, and always the only response I felt capable of was a stronger commitment to political militancy and more rigid ideological positions.
When I finally got out of prison, I moved to Milan and worked to express solidarity with political prisoners in Western Europe, especially in Franco’s Spain. Looking back, I remember believing that two visions of the world were clashing and it was my duty to fight against Fascism in black shirts, white shirts, or any other form it took. "Too simple!" I’d say today, but so it seemed to me back then.
By the early eighties, after fifteen years of radical activity, something broke up inside me. I still don’t know exactly what happened, but I saw no political reality unfolding in any part of the world that I could embrace. What I found most unbearable was the hatred of one’s neighbors—the common tendency among revolutionary groups to blame each other for their own defeats. So I went "underground" again, this time for a different purpose. My brother had spoken very highly of Aikido and I wished to try it. Practicing a martial art was still unacceptable for a full-time political activist, but quietly and secretly, making up odd excuses each time, I managed to go to the gym and get on the tatami mat. It was then I finally found the energy and the strength to make a final break with political militancy. Suddenly I found myself in a new and unknown dimension, without the reference points on which I had based my life for fifteen years. At the University of Rome, I started following the lessons of Corrado Pensa, a professor and teacher of Vipassana meditation. The following year I started practicing sitting meditation regularly and doing retreats with him and other teachers, including Christina Feldman, and Stephen and Martine Batchelor. Little by little, my life began to fall into place and a different understanding slowly appeared, in what I consider to be a real process of purification. Those were not always easy years, but they were full of a new warmth. I wound up working as a high school janitor. It was a hard job to accept, as I had no other interests to occupy me. But eventually I came to appreciate working in a stress-free, if monotonous, environment, and the opportunities it gave me for practice. It was a deep experience of freedom, sustained by the relationships I developed with my co-workers that went beyond the rigid rules of radical trade-unionism. Not that we didn’t make every attempt to defend our rights when we had to, but I found that when the perception of conflict changes, you sometimes find new and unexpected solutions. Sitting meditation and the practice of awareness in everyday life were wonderful training for non-violent conflict resolution, because they helped develop attitudes of equanimity and non-separation. These are the doors through which our true nature emerges, enabling us to accept the truth of things as they are. When I first heard the American Vietnam veteran Claude Thomas speak, I realized his words about war and violence related to me as well as to soldiers like him. To touch suffering means speaking not just about the violence of war and prison, but also about the violence that comes before and after war and prison. For we all have to look with awareness and compassion at our own inner suffering and violence. I believe this is the only way to set ourselves free from the automatic behaviors that so often govern our lives. In 1996, while practicing and studying Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Precepts, I decided together with some friends to give birth to an association called La Rete di Indra (Indra’s Net). Its aim is to promote the practice of mindfulness among those working in the caring professions or with volunteer organizations. We also offer people already on a spiritual path opportunities to come into direct contact with the suffering of others, so that they may offer their help. We have focused on assistance to the terminally ill, healing the wounds of violence, and raising funds for social activities in Cambodia and Vietnam. Involvement in La Rete di Indra has called on some of my past skills. Practical organization comes naturally to me; it is what I did in politics. But rather than trying to define our exact identity as an organization, we do our best to experience in a dynamic way the relationships that are developing one by one. We try to feel part of a true network, witnessing who we really are through the response and work of other people. Though my wife is American, I am still unable to get a visa to the U.S. due to my previous activities. I would dearly like to visit those American spiritual centers I’ve only read about in books. During the 1998 Zen Peacemaker Order retreat at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps, I vowed to "learn to really look deeply," and wrote that as an offering for the small altar we had built near the railway tracks at Birkenau. Today I wish to practice a policy of total and unilateral disarmament.
Roberto Mander is president of La Rete di Indra (Indra’s Net), a network of socially engaged Buddhist organizations in Italy associated with the Peacemaker Community. You can reach La Rete di Indra at
The Peacemaker Community can be reached at
The web site is www.peacemakercommunity.org.
Memoirs of a Revolutionist (ex)., Roberto Mander, Shambhala Sun, September 1999.
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Quiet, decorously polite, shamanistic Alex Grey met me at the door of his Brooklyn loft studio. With long graying hair like an Indian chief, thin compassionate face with luminous skin, and blue-gray eyes suggesting depths of experience, here was a person I was fascinated to meet, an explorer, experimenter, craftsman, and teacher on the path of art.
Encouraged to draw by his artist father, and being especially good at it, Alex Grey felt early on that his mission in life was to be an artist. Since then his dedication to making art has been steady, his vision of art expansive. His work has ranged from writing (two books) and teaching, to ritualistic performance art, multi-media installations, and a rich legacy of paintings and sculpture that has brought him international recognition.
His work has a strong, demanding presence. His painting is an unusual combination of mystical naiveté and almost scientific hyper-realism. You know you’re seeing something you haven’t seen before, but you can’t easily say what it is. The intensity of Alex Grey’s visionary art is an unexpected shock.
He writes in his new book, The Mission of Art: Visionary art is the creative expression of glimpses into the sacred unconscious, spanning the most searing shadow imagery of tortured souls in hell, the mythic archetypes of demonic and heroically compassionate forces that seem to guide and influence our feelings, and the luminous transpersonal heaven realms. Visionary art offers bizarre and unsettling insights, convincing us by its compelling internal truth.
As he put it more simply in our interview, I am in the pickle of a contemporary artist attempting to personally experience the transcendental and bring that into the work. Early in his career, he mostly abandoned painting and turned to performance art to clarify and expand his artistic goals. He created many controversial performance pieces, some of which he now considers morally ambiguous, even unethical. Like a shaman praying to be possessed, he was always physically at the center of these pieces, often using materials that no one would get near, his morbidness, his seriousness, his obsessiveness, all nakedly exposed.
Sometime in the late seventies, Grey began to take psychic risks on his path of art that went beyond public notoriety and controversy. He confronted demons and angels within himself, going to the edge of a dark abyss of insanity and absolute evil. Answering to his fears, a deep spiritual conscience was aroused within him. Humble and receptive, he vowed to make more positive statements with his art, turning away from an almost pathological nihilism to a more redemptive idealism and spirituality. This profound decision has left a lasting mark on his art of the last twenty years. So has meeting his wife Alyson, a painter, who has collaborated on many of his projects and whom he considers a gift of god on his artistic path.
Grey seems to have an insatiable curiosity about the human mind and its mysteries, the human soul and its mission, and God, not to mention space, matter and energy. He is a thoroughly modern man who celebrates the way of artistic understanding in the sacred traditions of the past, as well as in the most advanced technologies of today.
An art of universal spirituality, acknowledging all spiritual paths, drawing upon the image bank of the world and not from the limits of one culture over another, this is what Alex Grey is working toward. Discovering the sacred truths that underlie all the wisdom traditions, accessing transpersonal archetypes in vision states and bringing them back for us in the most authentic and iconic way possible, this is, in his words, his mission as an artist. -Steve Brooks
Brooks: What is your understanding of sacred art?
Grey: I think the mission of art is to embrace some personal sense of the transpersonal. Sacred art crystallizes a kind of revelatory power that reinforces our own sense of the depth of the meaning of life and our predicament here. When art can do that, not just expressing the small self, but expressing the larger collective soul and helping to entrain people to a greater reality, it’s beneficial. Art looks at the deepest level, which involves intensive self-examination and examination of the world, so that one can gear into spiritual domains.
Art is a reflection of who we think we are and what a culture is. It’s a reflection of cultures and individuals, and how they resonate. Art is the way a culture embeds its sacred truths so that they can be passed on, either the next day or centuries from that time. It’s the way we have preserved our cultural memory of who and what we are.
Brooks: How is this view reflected in your own art? Grey: My art is related to the visionary tradition of the sacred arts. I spend months, if not years, on a work which is based on a flash of a vision that can occur in less than a minute.
There is a lot of time in my work that’s spent in self-examination, although not in a morbid sense. I hope that the energy embedded in the work brings about some kind of self-reflection in the viewer, and perhaps crystallizes a complex of forces for them, as it did for me in the moment that I had the vision. I want to bring the viewer back to that spot, to the initial vision, and lay it gently in their stream of consciousness to dissolve over time or collect thought-energy, if that’s useful.
But imagery in our culture is now so plentiful, there’s endless generation of photography, clip-art, video, film, that keeping focused on the vision is a struggle. It becomes devotional labor, not unlike the labor in other sacred art traditions such as Tibetan thangka painting or Christian icon painting, requiring much time to complete. My labor is to pray, bring forward my best, and to keep on conforming to the image of my vision.
Brooks: You did not begin your artistic career with this kind of goal. Grey: My teenage and post-adolescent world view was permeated by a sense of the absurdity of existence. The meaninglessness of life was something that was very strong in me, and I struggled existentially with the question: what is art?
In the early seventies I came upon the performance art scene. It was a time of radical experimentalism. You could have yourself shot in the arm or slaughter a calf and spill its guts all over people, and call it art. If the artist called it art, it was art. Picasso was sort of the father of this tireless experimentalism, the constant reinvention of art, which in some sense mirrors scientific invention in the twentieth century. As contemporary artists we are inheritors of this tireless experimentalism. Yet I’ve come to see the search for new forms, of Art for art’s sake, as a shallow reason to perform and work.
Brooks: Is this how you see most art today? Grey: All the forces of tradition and the history of art come like a locomotive into the mind of a young artist. What is he or she supposed to do? Nowadays the artist has the widest range of possible modes of expression. Instead of tireless experimenting, I say, bring back the artist to what they are doing. Ask them: why are you making what you are making? What is the sense of it all?
This time of experimentation, modernism, post-modernism, all the previous romantic and impressionist and other approaches, had to do with the engagement of the artist with themselves, to individuate them from their culture, in a sense. This rebellion was necessary to establish art as a free agent of expression, not tied to one ideology or another. Art was an agency whereby you could be totally free to express who or what you are or aren’t. As egoic as it is, that is modernism’s hard won freedom, but it comes with no sort of requirements of conscience or consciousness.
Brooks:In light of that, do you have hope that sacred art has a future?
Grey:I think our task in the twentieth century has been to integrate the Eastern and Western approaches to our path in art. We’re at a time when we can access the many spiritual paths, each of which has a unique kind of sacred art. Today, artists are collaborating with each other all over the world, and there’s potential for a universal spiritual art, individually based but able to tap the archetypes of the collective.
This work demands its own kind of sacred space, instead of a normal art gallery. There’s a tremendous amount of religious art in a place like the Metropolitan Museum, it’s seething with spiritual fervor, in a sense, but it is like a butterfly that’s been pinned to the mount. It’s not necessarily expressly placed there for its transcendent function. It’s not specifically oriented toward that.
I feel that creation of sacred space, sacred architecture for the sacred arts, is an essential move in the twenty-first century. This why I want to build a chapel I’ve been calling Enthion, a place to discover the spirit within. You could call it interfaith or post-denominational. It would be a place inclusive of all spiritual paths which addresses the transpersonal or spiritual reality through contemplation of works of art that elicit immersion in the transcendental ground of being.
So the spiritual art of the twenty-first century and beyond can do these things, orient us to reverence for life and make a new kind of universal spiritual statement that underscores the value and meaning of life. I think that’s what’s to come.
For more on the work of Alex Grey visit his web site at: www.alexgrey.com
Alex Grey: The Mission of a Visionary Artist, Steve Brooks, Shambhala Sun, July 1999.
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NORMAN FISCHER on sex, family, love and liberation.
There is nothing more miraculous to me than the experience of looking at a baby, especially if the baby is your own, but any baby will do. The perfect fingers and toes, with their tiny precise nails, the intense face with its soulful expression devoid of defensiveness or posturing, the round soft body always alive with motion or utterly in repose: a picture of pristine humanness that delights the eye and heart.
Parents can spend hours gazing at their babies with endless fascination. How could such a creature exist and where could it have come from? How is it that it seems to look exactly like so many different relatives at once? How can its personality be already so clear and at the same time so unformed? The very nature of our lives seems to be called in question by this small person, whose fierce impulse simply to exist makes everything pale by comparison.
To really look at a baby in this way is to feel with immediacy a powerful, selfless, healing love that astonishes you with its purity and warmth. Overcome by it, you easily lose yourself in wonder. This is because the baby evokes an experience of pure human possibility. She, having only recently come up out of emptiness, bears still the marks: pure skin, soft limbs, perfect features; clear and unadulterated karma before the formation of self, with all its messy anxieties and complicated desires.
The same feeling comes over us when we fall in love. The beloved doesn’t appear as simply another person: she is rather the occasion, the location, of something unlimited, a feeling of connection and destiny that dissolves our habitual selfishness and isolation. We are overcome with a warm and enthusiastic feeling that cannot be denied, and that will distract us day and night. We exist in a special zone of delight as a result of this encounter with the unexpected force of love. All songs, soap operas, and most stories feed on whatever memory or longing we have for this feeling.
It seems to me that these experiences (which are always fleeting, though the commitments and consequences that flow from them can last a lifetime) are flashes of enlightenment, or, more exactly, of what is called in Buddhism bodhicitta, the oceanic impulse toward enlightenment not only for ourselves but for all beings.
Unlike anything else we think or experience, bodhicitta is not a creation of ego: we don’t decide to fall in love with our mate or our child; it is something that happens to us willy-nilly, a force of nature whose source is wholly unknown. The sutras call it "unproduced," which is to say, unconditioned, unlimited. We can’t even say it exists, in the ordinary sense of that word (and this is why many people doubt that it exists as anything more than a youthful delusion). It lifts us up, releases us from all that holds us to earth. Love occurs, we now know, although we don’t know what it is. We only know that we have been overcome by it.
Love is generated from twin impulses. Buddhism calls them emptiness and compassion; we could also call them wonder and warmth. Emptiness points to the miraculous nature of phenomena: that things are not what they appear to be; that they are, rather than separate, connected; that they are, rather than fixed and weighted, fluid and light. When we see a baby, when we look at the face of our beloved, we know that the way we’ve been conditioned to perceive the world isn’t right: the world is not a fearful and problematic challenge; it is, instead, a beautiful gift, and we are at its center always.
This comes to us primarily not as a thought or even as an emotion, but as a physical experience so compelling we are overcome with an impulse to merge with another, and through that other, with the whole world. We want to pour ourselves out of ourselves and into the beloved, as if our body were water. Love, then, is quite naturally and positively connected with the sexual. Minds don’t love, nor do hearts. These are abstractions. Whole bodies love, and naturally we want to cuddle, kiss, touch, hold, and feel the literal warmth of the other penetrate our body.
It is a wonderful and a necessary thing to hold your child next to your cheek or heart, to lie down with her at bedtime, kiss good night, perhaps fall asleep together. Such a thing is wonderful for parent, wonderful for child, this big feeling of peaceful security, of belonging and of transcendent warmth. A person can spend a lifetime longing to return to this feeling. In the same way, it is utterly relieving and necessary to fall into the sexual embrace with the beloved, to enter each other with warmth and delight and finally, peaceful release. It takes enormous trust to give yourself in this way, with nothing held back. It’s a form of liberation. There’s no sense of control, reserve or separateness. There’s no one there who could stand aloof.
I am sure that what I am saying here is so, but I also know that it is not what most of us experience most of the time. Sexuality may be the natural expression of a pure and selfless love, but it is also, in the deep economy of human emotion, chameleon-like; according to inner conditions, it takes on many colors. Clearly, the body only seldom operates in the pure service of selflessness. More often the liberative signals that are always potentially present, because we can at any moment fall in love with the whole world, get distorted by confusion of ego. We become conditioned to see sexuality as a replacement for so much else in our lives that we need but are unable to come into contact with. So sexuality becomes, among other things, a way to express a need for power, a way to avoid loneliness, frustration or fear. Probably nothing produces more self-deception, and when sexuality is deeply self-deceptive, it becomes dark and is the source of enormous suffering.
The Buddha respected sexuality very deeply, I think, and saw its potential for disaster. He felt that though the spiritual path naturally and beautifully contains an erotic element, the chances for perversion of the erotic are very great. Because of this he taught the practice of celibacy as the path toward love. In fact I would say that if celibacy is not a loving and warm practice it is not a true celibacy, it is only a justification for a coldness or distance that one naturally prefers, perhaps out of a fear of others. But a true celibate practitioner is free, because he or she is not attached to any one or several particular persons, to develop a universal love and warmth that includes self and everyone, all held in the basket of the Way.
For those of us who do not or cannot choose a path of celibacy, the challenge is to include our beloved or our family as a part of our practice, as exactly an avenue for the development of wide and broad love for the whole world. The fact is that there is no way that love can ever be narrow or exclusive. There is a tendency to see love in a limited way, as if, if we love or are loyal to one person or group, we cannot love or be loyal to another. But this is a perversion of love’s real nature. Love’s salient characteristic is that it is unlimited. It starts locally but always seeks to find through the local the universal. If that natural process is subverted, love becomes perverted: it must either grow or go sour. It can’t be reduced or hemmed in.
It is very common, of course, for the initial pure impulse toward love to become reduced, to find ourselves domesticating the beloved, as if they were known and predictable, subject to our needs, possessable. Once this happens there is jealousy, selfishness, disappointment, the desire to control and the fear of change. What was once love becomes a mutual conspiracy of smallness, and nothing is more common among long-lasting and seemingly successful relationships than this embattled holding on to the past in a way that is usually quite unhappy. It is debatable whether this is preferable to the endless seeking for the perfect mate that goes on among those who see divorce or breakup as the better remedy for inner restlessness.
These are, unfortunately, the usual paths that intimate relationships take, and it is astonishing to me that the power of love and longing for love is such that people keep trying in the face of such painfully poor odds.
The alternative is to see that it is absolutely necessary to practice renunciation within the context of loving relationships. This means that we are willing to give the beloved up, to recognize that we can never really know her, or, in any absolute sense, depend on her, any more than we can depend on our own body or on the weather. She is a mystery and as such unpossessable, so giving her up is not a matter of sacrifice.
If we had our eyes open from the start, we would have seen that the real vision of love was showing us this all along. All things are impermanent, created fresh each moment, and then gone. This being so, the miracle of love between two people, or within a family, is something precious and brief. In fact any human relationship is brief. We are together for a while and then inevitably we part. To love someone truly is to recognize this every day, to see the preciousness of the beloved and of the time we have together, to renounce any clinging need for or dependency on the other, and to make the effort to open our hands, so that instead of holding on we are nurturing and supporting.
People often wonder how it is possible, in the face of impermanence, to make a commitment to a relationship. It certainly seems logical that we either deny impermanence and assert our undying vow, or accept it and move on as soon as things change. But it is exactly impermanence that inspires commitment. Exactly because things always change, and we cannot prevent that, we give rise to a vow to remain faithful to love, because love is the only thing that is in harmony with change. Love is change; it is the movement and color of the world. Love is a feeling of constancy, openness, and appreciation for the wonder of the world, a feeling that we can be true to, no matter what circumstances may bring.
Although this may sounds impossibly idealistic, I believe it is quite practical. To respect the beloved, to give and ask for nothing in return, in faith that what we ourselves need will be provided without our insisting on it too much, may seem like the work of a saint, but I do not think there is any other way. In order to do it we will have to condition our ego, soften its edges, so that it becomes pliable and fearless enough to be open to what comes, and to be permissive, in the best sense of that word, for another. This is the basic spiritual practice.
It seems to me that for most of us, the journey of loving relationship, though quite difficult, is our best chance to develop bodhicitta. In mahayana Buddhism, this seemingly impossible and unlimited aspiration for the enlightenment of all is the heart of the practice, the beginning and end of it. And it seems only logical that in order to develop a love that big and thorough, it is good if we have somewhere to start, someone to practice on. To really love your lover, husband, wife, or child, taking that on as the most challenging and worthwhile of life’s projects, is a noble thing and it is possible. We know it is possible because we have all felt the compelling force of love at one time or another, even if we have forgotten it.
Originally published in the July 199 Shambhala Sun magazine. Also available in Right Here With You: Bringing Mindful Awareness into Our Relationships, Edited by Andrea Miller and the editors of the Shambhala Sun. Click here for more information about the book.
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