Path Without a Goal
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“Using the rhythm of the breath, we can join movements together into a flowing sequence that has no peak experience and no non-peak experience.”
I’m rolling the car down the ramp of Exit 70, but in my mind I’m already at the beach and it’s spring again. I luxuriate in the texture of the sand as my toes celebrate freedom from winter’s prison of shoes. I think about the beach beings I’ve met—jelly fish, joggers, park rangers, cartwheeling kids, dogs and their identical people-parents—and the adventures we’ve had, including the time we spent an hour rolling a big log all the way back to the car because we mistakenly thought it would make a great end table, and of course, the usual headstand or two to look at the waves upside down. No matter what the weather, we rest our eyes on the horizon and we rest our breath on the tide.
But really I am only to the end of Exit 70 and just coming up on the McDonalds. The vibrancy of my actual experiences at the beach are in direct contrast to the hour and a half drive it takes to get me there on the very long Long Island Expressway. I try to escape the boredom of the journey by listening to the radio, mentally processing my week and engaging in other “out-of-body” activities that remove my mind from its premises.
But I question the wisdom of ignoring the huge portion of my life that is not a peak experience—not to mention the advisability of paying so little attention to my driving. How can I wake up to my own life at the same time that I am living it?
The answer may lie in breath awareness and manipulation—the invisible bridge connecting body and mind. In OM yoga we use the tidal quality of the breath to initiate each movement and we join them all together in flowing sequences traditionally called vinyasa. This technique encourages us to see and feel everything along the way to and from each pose, so that the transitions and the positions are of equal interest. There is no peak experience and no non-peak experience. There is only the physical expression of path without a goal.
To experience this for yourself, try the following sequence, which is appropriate for any level of yogi, including yoga virgins. This vinyasa creates heat in your body, which softens your muscles and increases the range of motion in your hips, shoulders, wrists, elbows, knees, ankles, toes and the entire spine.
Each movement should take as long as each breath, so you never stop breathing or moving. Try to make your inhalations and exhalations slow and equal in length, so that your movements are balanced. If you want to stay in any position for more than one breath, that’s fine. The idea is to stay focused on your breath and to experience the richness of each moment, whether it’s challenging, strenuous, energizing or relaxing. Let your body unfold on each breath and see what it feels like to be you today.
1) Assume the ever-popular all-fours position. Check that your wrists are directly below your shoulders and your knees are directly below your hips. INHALE.
2) Cow. As you EXHALE, drop your head and tuck your tailbone way under. Feel your belly lift up toward your spine.
3) Cat. As you INHALE, lift your chest and sitting bones up to the ceiling. Feel your spine being absorbed into your body.
4) Downward Dog. Maintaining the Cat tilt in your pelvis, EXHALE and lift your hips up as you press your palms down and lengthen your heels toward the floor. The Downward Dog position is a partial inversion, which improves digestion, massages your heart and enhances mental clarity.
5) Keeping a sense of upward lift in your hips, INHALE and gently lower your knees back to all-fours on the floor.
6) Child’s Pose. EXHALE as you press your hips back over your heels into the Child’s Pose. This pose massages the abdominal organs, rests your brain, and stretches the shoulders and hips. As you INHALE, come back to all-fours and repeat the entire sequence. Try to do it four times in a row.
Practicing this vinyasa will help develop flexibility, strength, coordination, balance and rhythm. At first you might feel stiff or weak or uncoordinated, but that will change over time and by paying attention to your process, you might even notice when your body starts to open, your energy flows more, and your balance arrives.
This method of combining the breath awareness techniques of Buddhist mindfulness tradition with the breath manipulation exercises of hatha yoga can be applied to your everyday life. For years I lived on the sixth floor of a building in New York’s East Village with such steep stairs that it was a little bit like rock climbing. My boyfriend used to huff and puff and always ask me, “How can you stand to do this every day?” Then one day on the landing of the third floor, he had an epiphany and said, “Oh, I get it. This is just what you’re doing right now.”
And he was right. Over time, my yoga training had organically led me to deepen my breathing as I went up those steps. My inhalation helped my torso and spine feel lifted and supported and my exhalation grounded my feet down on each stair. Letting my mind ride on those deep breaths helped keep it in my body, rather than racing ahead to the top of the stairs where it would then look down on my poor struggling physicality dragging up flight after flight.
So here is a homework assignment: Take the stairs, or if you don’t have that option, you can do this biking, jogging or with any physical activity that you always wish was over long before it ends—such as carrying laundry or groceries for a few blocks. Don’t try to change your experience but rather, change your approach to it. Deepen your breathing—inhale through the nose for upward movements and exhale through the nose for downward movements. And when life calls your name, say “Present!”
Cyndi Lee is founder of the OM Yoga Center in New York and creator of Yoga in a Box, available from the One Spirit Book Club.
The Endless Migration
The Endless Migration
“Psychologically, we are migrators. Going from one thing to another is what makes us happy. So do you think that all stops when you die?”
Human beings are goers. If we look at our daily experience, what do we do? We go from one thing to the next. We are always going from one thought to another thought, from one meal to the next meal, from one bathroom stop to the next bathroom stop. We’re constantly asking ourselves, “What am I going to do next?” We ask other people, “Where are you going?” and “Where did you come from?”
Psychologically, we are migrators. Going from one thing to another is what makes us happy. Of course, we do need to go to the bathroom or eat food, but if we watch ourselves, we see it is more than that. It’s our nature that no situation is pleasant for us for very long. To stay comfortable, we shift from one physical posture to another. We get thirsty and we have to drink water. We need entertainment so we have to have a conversation. Then that conversation is over and we go on to the next one.
So, do you think all that stops when you die? Well, your guess is as good as mine, but if you think about it, you would probably say that chances are something is going to keep happening. There is a momentum. Precedents have been set.
When people hear I am a Buddhist, they often say, “Oh, do you believe in rebirth?” For it is not the Buddhist view that we live only one lifetime, and if that’s what we think, we are not on the Buddhist path.
The Buddha’s point of view was that rebirth is not just some belief. It’s the way things are. The reason we find rebirth so difficult to accept is that we think we really exist. We think we had a real birth and that we will have a real death. Getting beyond the notion that such things are truly existent loosens and liberates our mind. Through meditation we begin to prove to ourselves that things don’t really exist, and all of a sudden we have a blank sheet. Everything opens up, and we can relate to the idea of having many lifetimes.
Understanding samsara—the cycle of death and rebirth in which we are caught—is understanding the nature of mind. It is our mind that is the nature of samsara. Samsara only seems to be a physical place because we see separation between phenomena—between people, objects, space. On the other hand, the Buddha goes to Las Vegas and sees the inseparability of form and emptiness, even there.
Our migration through the cycles of death and rebirth is a function of mind. Here we are talking of karma, of virtue and nonvirtue. The way that this whole machinery of samsara functions is by means of virtue and nonvirtue. Virtue produces peace. It produces pleasure, enjoyment and happiness. Nonvirtue produces pain, suffering, agitation, and discontent.
From the Buddhist point of view, any pleasures we experience in this life are due to previous lifetimes of virtue, and any suffering we experience now is the product of previous nonvirtue. Depending on what virtue or nonvirtue we have accumulated, we take birth in one of the realms, and over the course of lifetimes, we migrate among the realms—up and down, round and round, in and out, over and over.
The interesting thing is that all of us have gone through this cycle. At some point in our lifetimes, we have been beautiful gods. We have been kings and queens of great countries. But we have all ended up back here again. We have all been the highest of the high and the lowest of the low—ad infinitum. We are just passing through. We are all migrators. That is samsara.
It is said that the Buddha achieved all the highest states. But then he asked, “What’s the big deal? We’re still in samsara. We could meditate for a billion years in complete equanimity, leave the body and pass into another state, but won’t we still die eventually? Won’t even this state end?” The answer was, “Well, yes, it will, but it’s still pretty good, isn’t it?” And the Buddha said, “No, it’s not good enough, because we always end up back here again.”
The Buddha had the best that could be achieved in this world. It is said he was the smartest guy, the best looking guy, the strongest guy. He did every sensual thing you could possibly think of. He was the king of a country and could do whatever he wanted, and still he was not happy. Even if we can get whatever we want, happiness is not to be found in samsara. Fundamentally, we are still not happy because the mind is not settled. It still churns.
For individuals in samsara, the suffering goes on and on. You could have a perfect life: you could be born wealthy, have good health, a great marriage and kids, and live in a big house with no problems during your whole life. But at the end, you are going to suffer and die. Perhaps you had seventy good years, but in relative terms, that is a very small amount of time. At the end, it is over, and you will probably not end up in the same situation again.
When we look at this, we realize that the situation is not so good. At this point, having understood samsara, we are left with renunciation. We are turning our mind away from samsara towards nirvana, liberation. Understanding the nature of samsara, we start to think about how, exactly, we are going to get out of it. So we turn to contemplative practice.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Buddhist and Shambhala lineages of his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In 1995 he was recognized as the incarnation of the great nineteenth-century Buddhist teacher Mipham Rinpoche. He is currently writing a book on mindfulness meditation, to be published by Riverhead.
Saving Tibet's Children
Saving Tibet's Children
Dr. Nancy Harris has dedicated herself to fighting the malnutrition and preventable disease threatening Tibet’s children. As Sienna Craig reports, she seeks solutions not in outside aid but in Tibet’s own resources and traditions.
It is midnight on the Tibetan plateau. The moon, long since risen, hovers over a landscape stilled by winter. An inky sky, shot through with stars, stretches across this high, dry land. Several nomad tents punctuate the plain and a mastiff stands guard over them. Drawing closer to the encampment, one can see the faint glow of fire coming from one of the tents.
Inside, the tent is alive with laughter and the talk is as thick as the smoke from the burning yak dung in the hearth. Several people huddle around the fire: two local men, a nomad woman with her children, a traditional doctor from Lhasa, and Nancy Harris, a physician from northern California. They have come together to address the health crisis facing the children of Tibet.
The problems of Tibet’s children are widespread, serious—and preventable. Ninety of every one thousand Tibetan children die of treatable afflictions such as malnutrition and diarrhea. Many have rickets, a bone disease most frequently caused by vitamin D deficiency, and a high proportion of children suffer from severe stunting. The physical and mental development of one million children, the next generation of Tibetans, is threatened by nutritional deprivation, placing the future of a whole people and culture—long one of the world’s most resilient—at risk.
The two elderly Tibetan men sitting around this late evening fire speak quietly, explaining to Dr. Harris and her Lhasa-based collaborator where the best medicinal herbs in the area can be found. The woman nurses her son, a small child who could be taken for a newborn, and at her feet sleeps another child, a daughter who is twelve but looks half that.
The group has spent hours that day measuring the height, weight and skinfold thickness of the area’s youngsters, collecting critical baseline data. They have administered traditional medicines to children diagnosed with diarrhea and acute respiratory infections, and also to a control group of healthier children in an ongoing effort to determine the effectiveness of a new herbal compound. The group is exhausted but pleased by what they have accomplished.
They are part of an unusual team—the Tibet Child Nutrition and Collaborative Health Project. Founded by Dr. Harris in 1993, this non-profit organization includes traditional Tibetan doctors, a western-trained Tibetan physician, Chinese health care workers, and several Western practitioners, including Dr. Harris. All are dedicating themselves to the health of Tibet’s children.
For nearly a decade Nancy Harris has spent half of each year on the Tibetan plateau. In what can only be described as a raw physical and political climate, she and her partners have succeeded in bringing medical care to more than 8,500 Tibetan children and families, often at sub-zero temperatures in settlements at altitudes of over 13,000 feet, without benefit of electricity, heat or running water.
The project has distributed more than half a million dollars worth of medical supplies and has held workshops and training classes for more than two hundred health workers. The team is spearheading programs to combat malnutrition and rickets and fighting child and maternal mortality through a health care training and midwifery program. Many of the public health experts who initially thought Harris’ vision impossible now praise the project for its creative solutions to the health emergency in Tibet.
“It got started for reasons I can’t explain,” says Harris, back in the United States, as we sit in a quiet corner of a San Francisco restaurant. “About 1988, I sort of got a calling to go to Tibet.” Educated at Yale and Stanford, she was working at the time for the U.S. Public Health Service with Hispanic, indigent, and HIV communities. “I was thinking about issues of justice, violence, poverty, suffering, and sickness. About what matters in life, and what to do with my own life.”
Harris had worked with native communities in Venezuela on a Fulbright fellowship in 1978, and was no stranger to the difficulties and pitfalls of international development work. But in spite of the fact she had no real knowledge of the country and “no pull to go to Asia,” somehow a seed was planted, and in 1990 Harris went to Tibet.
Before going to Lhasa, she spent three months studying Chinese medicine in Beijing, an intuitive move that has made possible her work in Tibet. During her stay in China’s capital, Harris met a number of intellectuals, doctors and other health practitioners who taught her how to navigate the Chinese system. “They were anxious to reach out,” she says. “Had I gone to Tibet first, I would not have been helpful at all.”
What struck Harris during her first visit to Tibet was the condition of the children: those whose raven-colored hair had faded to blonde from malnutrition, those whose petite frames hinted at rickets, and those whose survival was routinely threatened by respiratory infection and chronic gastro-intestinal problems. Deeply affected by the sight of so much suffering, she tried to find data on Tibetan children’s health and infant and maternal mortality. She found virtually nothing.
“I realized that the way I could help most in a medical capacity was to work with children,” she explains. “There is no reason I should have chosen this path. My background is not in pediatrics, epidemiology or statistics, but it became very clear to me that working with young people would be the most significant way to impact the outcome of this particular ethnic group.”
Harris desperately wanted to know why Tibet’s children were starving, and she wanted to do something to stop it. After two years of negotiations with the Chinese government, Harris launched the Tibet Child Nutrition and Collaborative Health Project. It got going in 1993, financed out of Harris’ own pocket, and received its first external funding in 1994.
Harris’ philosophy is that most of what is needed to address the health crisis already exists within Tibet—in traditional Tibetan medicine and the wealth of medicinal plants found across the Tibetan plateau. “Our goal is to reassure Tibetans that they have, and always have had, all the answers they need to sustain themselves,” Harris says.
Between 1993 and 1996, a team of American, Tibetan and Chinese health professionals conducted baseline nutritional and epidemiological research on 2,500 children throughout Tibet. The results, published in International Child Health, confirmed what Harris had seen with her own eyes. Fifty-two percent of the children examined suffered from severe stunting; 40% showed signs of protein malnutrition; 67% had rickets. Statistics from sixteen counties across Tibet showed that 41% of deaths among infants and children were caused by pneumonia and 20% by diarrhea.
These findings inspired a four-pronged attack on the health crisis of Tibetan children: a rickets education and prevention program; encouraging use of an indigenous high protein root called droma; support for traditional Tibetan medicine, and a health care training and delivery program. These projects are giving shape to an approach to health care that relies on traditional herbs and local foods alongside allopathic drugs such as antibiotics.
The rickets-related venture is based on a simple premise: that encouraging mothers to expose their infants to sunshine will decrease the prevalence of this disease, which is caused by lack of vitamin D and calcium. Currently, Tibetans’ swaddling practices during the first years of life prevent infants from getting enough exposure to the sun, but it was not always so. According to village elders, before recent cultural changes Tibetan infants were traditionally placed in the sun for short, but effective, periods of time. When I tell Harris that I had seen such sunbathing—infants greased with apricot oil and flipped like delicate pancakes in the sun—in ethnically Tibetan regions of Nepal, her face lights up. “You see, it is all there already.”
Harris sees an answer to malnutrition in a small root called droma (Potentilla anserina), which grows on grasslands throughout Tibet. Tibetans once harvested droma, ground it, and fed it to their children. I recall seeing bundles of this bleached umber root in the markets of Kathmandu, and have watched villagers harvest it in the high pastures of Dolpo in western Nepal.
On an informed hunch, Harris commissioned a nutrient analysis of droma, which revealed that its amino acid profile is complementary to that of barley, a Tibetan staple. When combined, droma and barley form a complete protein, and since barley flour is mixed with tea and fed to children from a very young age, droma can easily be added to the mixture.
“We have been doing a lot of research, gathering proof that what we are doing with droma is making a difference,” Harris explains. But after several years of answering questions about droma and infant swaddling practices, the villagers have become impatient.
“They finally came to us and said, ‘Will you stop asking us all these questions? Just tell us if we should feed droma to kids or not. Should we put our kids in the sun or not?’ They can see with their own eyes that their kids are dying. I don’t have to convince them of that. They would like to know what to do. That is what has been so exciting about this past year.”
Beginning in 1999, the project has been introducing the droma and rickets programs on a larger scale. Harris is the first to point out that none of these programs would be successful without the collaboration of traditional Tibetan practitioners. Ultimately, it is they, along with the spiritual leaders, who can lead a community to modify its health practices. Changes in behavior begin with these learned elders.
“Some people feel that the degree to which I am impressed by traditional wisdom is fatuous and ill-informed. We should be telling them about pesticides and things,” Harris says ironically. “But these people have lived there for thousands of years and if they hadn’t figured out how to live there, they wouldn’t have made it this far. Their beliefs are functional. But there is a line to be walked. Just because someone is old and wears a costume, has a title and is labeled indigenous, doesn’t necessarily mean they have wisdom.”
Throughout her time in Tibet, Harris has worked to identify traditional practitioners who are willing to combine their techniques with Western methods. “A circle of traditional physicians has emerged who are excited, not threatened, to work with Western doctors,” she says. “Of course, they are cautious about disclosing their proprietary ingredients, but they would love to see recognition by Western scientists.
“Last year we gave an old master carte blanche to create an herbal recipe for children, to address the reasons that they most often die,” Harris relates. “He and his two apprentices tested the recipe all through the winter, in three month intervals. One half of the kids got the herbs and the other half did not. It will be very interesting to see how this recipe does when the analysis is complete. Especially because with my own eyes as a doctor I could see positive changes in those who took it. Their hair was getting darker; they were less run down and miserable.”
Harris’ work has been honored and supported by numerous foundations and private organizations, and in 1998 she received the Temple Award for Creative Altruism. When I ask her about these accolades, Harris sloughs them off. “Altruism is a very interesting concept, because if you are doing it for thanks, then it will blow up in your face. It is not altruism if there is ego involved, if you want someone to say thank you and recognize that you’ve sacrificed.
“I have an incredible commitment to make sure every cent that comes through us is getting to them,” Harris says. “All you need to develop this commitment is to have a child die in your arms and to know that for fifty cents, for the cost of soap and water, that death could have been prevented.
“The dharma in this work is patience and faith. Patience has never been my strong point, and the work certainly has not been lucrative. Several years ago I nearly lost my own health completely.” She rests on this thought for a moment, then moves on. “But there is a reward,” she says quietly. “It is not material, not a plaque on your wall. Instead, it is to be part of a cycle of unconditional love, as a participant and a witness, as a donor and a recipient. What goes out comes back in, more so. It is one of the few times that life becomes effortless.”
Sienna Craig is a freelance writer in Berkeley who is writing a book about Mustang, Nepal. The Tibet Child Nutrition and Collaborative Health Project can be reached through International Health Programs, attention Kristina Hamel, 210 High Street, Santa Cruz CA 95060.
Walking With St Francis
Walking With St Francis
Gretal Ehrlich walks in the footsteps of St. Francis through the Umbrian countryside and ponders the life of a saint who was "radical without bitterness, vital yet gentle, dramatic—even outrageous at times—without narcissism."
The road to Gubbio veers north by northwest from Assisi. It slides under La Rocca—the feudal fortress that once guarded the inhabitants of the town—then straightens out and cuts down through steep mountains and thick forests to the river Tescio. Sometimes a footpath, a horse track, or a Roman street, it is now a gravel road that winds through a rollercoaster landscape of treeless peaks and deep stream-cut valleys, all dotted with tiny farms and fortress-like monasteries where thirteenth-century travelers could spend the night.
As I shouldered my rucksack on a cold March morning almost eight hundred years later, the Piazza del Comune, lined with religious souvenir shops and zinc bars, was empty except for pigeons and dogs. Bells chimed the hours and robins sang wake-up songs. All over town, Franciscan monks—the order of mendicant friars which is St. Francis’ legacy—were praying. Soon the roar of cement trucks and rubble pouring from the blank windows of buildings being repaired filled the town. Since the October 1997 earthquakes, all of Assisi was being restored.
Assisi had been many things: Etruscan stronghold and Roman spa, where Catholic churches were erected on top of the ruins of Roman temples, one set of gods segueing into another. During World War II, Jews were hidden in convents by Catholic clergy. In 1797, Napoleon stabled his horses in the Basilica at Santa Marie deli Angelli where once, St. Francis, in a state of angst, threw himself on a rose bush. After, the stems lost their thorns and, eight hundred years later, still grow smooth-stemmed.
“Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money”—a verse from St. Luke (9:3) that spurred St. Francis on. In a similar spirit, I found that all my money had been stolen—not in Italy, but on the airplane from New York, and though I tried to entertain the joys of disburdenment, I failed. Three runners in Lycra sped by, and a nun with a cell phone clutched to her ear. Why not just walk to Gubbio? I thought. Then, with my companion, Tony, an Australian with a Franciscan’s hard-won sense of joy, I ambled up the street to the gate that would lead us out of the walled city.
At Porto Giovanni a blind man stood in the shadows. His eyes were blue oceans, and under his feet the cobblestones shone still wet from the previous night’s rain. A hand-carved cane hung from his folded arms. I thought of how St. Francis passed here on just such a freezing spring day, spiritually blind as he began his long journey, and literally blind twenty-two years later when he was carried back through the gate to die.
The blind man began singing and talking as we passed by, the two sounds rolling together into squeaks, grunts, and held notes. Then he stamped his feet in place, as if he too had decided to walk along.
The Sentiero Francescano della Pace—or any path—is a place where going never ends, where arriving is always happening. It is a wavering that receives our falls, a gash in geology’s stacked floor where our uncertain feet break through to another dimension. Blind or sighted, it is impossible to know one’s direction. The path is all space, falling out from under our feet, and rising up above our heads.
St. Francis was still known as Francesco di Brendan when he began walking. His father was a wealthy silk merchant who had changed his son’s name from Giovanni to Francesco because of his love for all things French. In training for the clothier guild of Assisi, the young Francesco was often more elegantly dressed than his clients and given to lavish spending when it came to banquets.
He envisioned himself as the Prince of Assisi with a castle as his home, not the Prince of Peace who slept on the ground. A libertine and charming gadabout, he wooed women with the troubadour songs of Provencal, spending each year’s 150 religious holidays sauntering through the Umbrian countryside on foot and horseback. He was born with a natural affinity for the outdoors: he loved the mountains and rivers, as well as the forests and farms, birds, insects, wolves and bears. In turn, almost tropistically, they began to love him.
What leads a medieval playboy to sainthood, and where does the journey begin? That’s what I wondered as I followed the saint’s footsteps out of Assisi. I had been attracted to St. Francis because I’m a walker myself, have walked away from a life-threatening encounter with lightning into health. I’ve lived with the herds, slept under the stars with them, and now share a house with wild birds—a family of canyon wrens was born and fledged in my bedroom. When I began writing about St. Francis, a sparrow began perching on a rafter, watching me write, and spent three nights watching over my fragmented thoughts.
I’ve loved St. Francis for his unmediated kinship with animals, as well as his modernity. He could well have been a sixties’ radical, casting off convention and everything money can buy. His action had something to teach: he was radical without bitterness, vital yet gentle, dramatic—even outrageous at times—without narcissism.
Isn’t it always a sense that something is wrong, even though we don’t know quite what, that leads us out of our usual habits and haunts? By the time Francesco was seventeen he had been to war and survived a year in the dungeons of the nearby town of Perugia. When he came home, he was frail with tuberculosis and walked with a cane. He tried to resume his libertine’s life, but his nights were pierced by voices shouting orders.
Every time Francesco started off on a trip something happened to obstruct his journey. When he rode to the Fourth Crusade in the glorious suit of armor his father had made, he turned back after the first night in Spoleto, too sick to go on. A voice—apocryphal or not— had asked, “Who can give you more, Master or Servant? He replied, “Master.” The voice said, “Then go home.” Was it divine intervention or reality’s reality imposing itself? Redemption and enlightenment was the only road he could take.
After Francesco gave his armor to a down-at-the-heels knight and returned to Assisi, his father was outraged: all that expense gone to waste. But generosity is the other side of hedonism’s coin. The gesture was typical of him.
After failing as a knight, Francesco tried to resume the high life, adopting the chivalric code as his own. Strolling through town after a banquet he had hosted, he became separated from the others and had a vision of a beautiful woman, a princess who lived in a palace full of armor and riches. He was going to find her, he told his friends when they caught up with him. L’amour fou. That’s what it would have been called by the French troubadours he so emulated. But he did not seek her out. Wandering alone, Francis became God’s Fool that night. Was he crazy? Perhaps. He had fallen in love, not with a flesh-and-blood princess, but with Lady Poverty, whom he would soon wed.
Behind Assisi is a mountain, Mt. Subasio, that rises almost straight up and is pocked with limestone caves, called the Eremo Carceri (the prisons). In his confusion Francesco sought refuge there and prayed in a frigid grotto, righting the demons of lust, pride, and vanity. So much of medieval life was dark and vengeful, secretive and violent, fixated on the Christian tragedy of Man’s Fall. Only confession could propel a proper Catholic to eternity. But Francesco had no interest in joining the church as a monk or parish priest. After months of anguished meditation he began walking again: meditation in action was his ideal.
By the time Francis walked back down the mountain he was no longer Assisi’s man-about-town, but a footsore Dharma-bum who had traded in his dandy’s silk-and-velvet breeches and capes for a sackcloth tunic emblazoned with the sign of the cross, held in place by a three-knot cord representing his vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience—words easy enough to say, but a formidable task to put into practice. Walking and giving, walking and singing, walking and praying: the Sentiero—wherever it led—the proving ground for sainthood. Walking was an ambulation of mind.
Driven toward the center of his faith, he walked to Rome. This was the first of many “Peregrinari pro Dei amore”—pilgrimages for the love of God. He stopped at monasteries to pray and hear the Gospels; to live the life of Jesus was his aim. He especially liked St. John, who wrote: “The wind blows where it pleases . . . even so is every man who is born of the Spirit.” (3:8) Francesco might as well have been singing the songs of Dylan.
This time there were no obstructions on his path: walking itself stood for the opening of the heart: wind peeled his skin away. He was totally exposed, stripped of ego; animals began following him. His earliest biographer, Thomas Celano, reported that along the Via Flamina, birds flocked to St. Francis, crowding his shoulders and arms for a place to perch. Instead of scolding them away as a nuisance, he welcomed them. Bird, human, river, mountain—they were all God.
At Saint Peter’s in Rome he emptied his purse and threw handfuls of silver into the coffers, then sat on the steps to rest and beg for food. He was dumbfounded and bewildered by all that had happened to him. How had he ended up living in caves and begging on the streets when he was meant to be singing love songs to a princess? How had the son of a silk merchant, who was meant to wear armor, ended up wearing rags?
Starting for home, he gave to those with less. Once, having nothing else to give away, he tore off the sleeve of his tunic for a beggar who needed clothes, reducing himself to near-nakedness. He stopped to help lepers clean their wounds, fighting the disgust he felt on seeing their rotting bodies. He was teetering, as he went, between the sacred and secular, the raw and the cooked, between the life of the knight and the life of the monk. He couldn’t know yet how close the two really were. Either way, he was a radical man with a wild heart and he stayed that way.
St. Francis was beginning to understand that renunciation meant giving up nostalgia for habitual thought: it was a fight to keep from being lured back to his libertine’s den. On those cold Umbrian nights, praying and sleeping on the ground with no food, no clothes, no home, the practice of renunciation must have tasted bitter. His conversion was literally “a turning around,” from gallant knight into spiritual warrior. Conversion also implied an ongoing conversation with God. He had already torn away so much, but there was more to come.
On returning to Assisi, St. Francis now sought refuge at San Damiano, a quiet hermitage just below Assisi’s walls. During vespers one day, the crucifix lit up and a voice spoke: “Francis, do you not see how my house is falling into ruin? Go and repair it for me!”
Francis took the words literally, thinking he was to repair the walls of the church, no doubt rattled by frequent earthquakes. Frustrated by the challenge, he stole a horse and bolts of precious silk from his father, trotted down the road to Foligno and sold them, then offered the money to the priest at San Damiano to help with reconstruction. The priest refused the donation. When Francis’ father discovered the theft, he came after his son, who hid in the cave on Mt. Subasio.
Finally regaining his courage, Francis walked down the mountain into Assisi. The bon vivant, once the most popular man in town, was treated as a madman. “Pazzo, pazzo,” his friends yelled. Stones were thrown. His father seized him, dragged him to the house, tied him in chains, and beat him. When no one was looking, Francis’ mother, Pica, a devout Catholic who believed her son was on the path to sainthood, set him free.
It was not long before Francis’ father caught up with his son and brought him before the Bishop of Assisi in the Piazza del Comune to be tried as a thief. There, father renounced son and Francis, in turn, renounced his father. “I am the son of God, not of man,” he declared, and stripped off all his clothes. Standing naked in the middle of the piazza, he handed over his clothes and the purse full of money, then walked out of town.
The road to Gubbio is cobblestone, pavement and gravel that gives on to a path through what were once forests and are now open fields. The 1371 C.E. statutes of the Comune Eugubine, now called Gubbio, states that the road which St. Francis took “qua itur Valfabrica”, followed the river Tescia downstream to the village of Campolongo, then on to a nearby Benedictine monastery, where he stayed the night. In the morning, finding a waterfall, he washed his body clean of worldly concerns. Refreshed, he left the river and walked cross-country over snowy mountain tops. Each step he took represented an inward peregrination. The journey was life. The path was time, the medium in which he marched toward sainthood.
Just after the village of Pioppo and before reaching Valfabrica, bandits jumped St. Francis, but he had nothing to give—only his poverty. Disgusted, the robbers threw St. Francis into a ditch full of snow and ran off. Francis emerged singing.
Penniless, sick, frail, he had no address. He was just walking. He had never been ordained. His self-styled vocation, shaky as it seemed at first, was for redemption, spiritual growth, and liberation, not the medieval alchemy of secrecy and poison, and his natural radiance magnetized those who came near to him. Men stepped away from arduous and busy lives and became disciples. Others listened when he spoke: farmers, townspeople, housewives, children, birds, insects, and animals.
“Oh Signore, fa di me un istrumeto della tua Pace,” he cried out as he walked. (O Father, make me the instrument of your peace.) Instead of taking on the monastic rule of the church, he abandoned himself to God and the road and all that came with it: bad weather, bandits, sickness, wild animals, and spiritual confusion. He was God’s vagabond and “geography’s ant.” He forsook the safe haven of a monastery or parish and learned to inhabit change. Action was devotion; he felt jubilation instead of shame. His chivalric, libertine’s behavior was a reverse mirror of a sage’s crazy wisdom. Soon enough, his prowess, courage, pride, loyalty, and courtesy were transformed into tenacity, zeal, compassion, contemplation, grace, joy, and love. With unimaginable self-discipline he kept adjusting to the difficulty of the path, learning to live each moment in total combustion.
Winter snows lay draped in lazy drifts across the Sentiero della Francesco. I took off my shoes and plunged into the snow. The arches of my feet ached with the cold. After a few moments I put my socks and shoes back on and, with tingling feet, kept walking. Behind me, to the south, Mt. Subasio showed its back. It was a black wall crowned with sun-glinting silver.
To walk is to unbalance oneself. Between one step and the next we become lost. Balance is regained as the foot touches earth, then it goes as the foot lifts. A path is made of dirt and rock; it is also a swath of light cut through all that appears to be solid and unchanging. It is a flesh wound that opens deep in the foot of the walker, so that what we are, and where we are going, and the way we’ve chosen to get there, remains directionless; the traveler is forever wounded and lost. Pain, discomfort, and groundlessness are the seeker’s friends. Being lost turns into a state of awakeness; it is the same as being found.
Walking, I tried to feel his path: how the Sentiero had opened him; how the Umbrian landscape became the font of inspiration into which he dipped. As we trekked out of a deep valley between patches of snow, the path was lined with blackberry bushes; ginestra (Scotch broom), and wild iris lined the way. The hayfields were thick with bunchgrass, clover, and filaree, interspersed with wheat, corn, and sunflower fields, grapes, figs, apples, prunes, and walnuts. I tried to imagine the animals darting out from forest cover to amble at his side or flutter around his head, but there were no animals anywhere. So much that was part of this landscape had been changed and. desecrated since St. Francis walked here: mountains were denuded of trees and the almost all the animals and birds had been shot.
Up on a hill near a ruin, a stone wall broke open. A Fiat roared by. Punta or Panda? Tony asked. In the distance we saw cranes—what Tony referred to as “Italy’s national bird.” Not the avian kind, but the mechanical cranes with which tumbled farmhouses are now being restored. Bereft of life and diversity, the Umbrian beauty seemed surprisingly shabby.
In the thirteenth-century, solemn Benedictine monks held sway on every one of these Umbrian mountaintops. No doubt, St. Francis was seen as a kook. He was everything the Benedictines weren’t: rapturous, anti-intellectual, childlike in his evangelical zeal. He was a pleine air guru, an itinerant preacher, a poor hermit, a beggar who would not beg, too outrageous to be of the church, too smitten with God to be against it. In fits and starts, he forged his own way.
We passed neat-as-a-pin subsistence farms whose vineyards were so old as to look like groves of thick-trunked trees. We walked uphill through Piano di Pieve, then down again toward a waterfall. A loudspeaker mounted on a Fiat truck broke the silence: “Oggi. Today, Father _____ (I didn’t catch his name) will be coming around to bless your house.”
The whole valley was in a state of excitement. Doors and windows were thrown wide open. Bedding was aired, floors cleaned. The family restaurant we stopped at for lunch had suddenly closed. These were mountains where blessings were still more important than commerce: the priest was on his way.
Somewhere between San Presto and Collemincio, a farmer invited us in for coffee. Renato was small and wiry with huge dirt-stained hands. The gap where his four lower teeth were missing was bridged by silver rods haphazardly cobbled into place. He had been born in the house and his wife, Theresa, came from a farm just up the road. She had recently suffered bouts of angina and had cut down on the number of cows she milked every day. Her wide, coarse face opened in a beatific smile as she offered us “pane di San Francesco”—bread with nuts and fruit—and assured us that St. Francis had once passed this way.
Not long ago people like Renato and Theresa worked for a padrone as serfs, for no pay. Now the farm was theirs. The house was a series of small rooms connected by a hallway. Only the kitchen and eating room were heated. Near the fireplace two large hams hung from rafters. “We season them with salt and herbs and let them dry by the fire. That is how prosciutto is made,” Renato said. Every once in a while there was a thud and the wall shook. Terremotto? I asked. They shook their heads, no. “It is the cows. They live on the first floor.”
To embrace poverty meant more than going without. It demanded a way of living that was all-accommodating. St. Francis disproved the apparent contradiction that you could spend your life giving when you possessed nothing. Poverty meant materializing riches from emptiness. St. Francis’ sick body humbled him whenever prayer failed, enabling him to welcome the disinherited and the sick, and to share their lives with a pure heart because it was his life too. Between walkabouts he helped care for the lepers, the poor, the homeless. From emptiness comes compassion.
We continued up the road. Farmers pruned grapevines and olive trees. Stacks of firewood gave way to stacks of roof tiles drying. A blue tent, distributed during the earthquakes, was still pitched in one of the yards—just in case. Not far from there, a whole town had collapsed during the October earthquake. The yearly custom of baking a certain kind of bread as an offering against natural disaster was overlooked in 1997. Now the villagers, all living in tents and containers, attributed their tragedy to that single lapse.
We walked a ridgeline, dipped into a valley, then trudged uphill again. The air was cold but we were sweating. Farm implements, a hay rake and a horse-drawn ditcher, were nineteenth-century—no sign of millennial modernity here. Instead, we heard whispers about the third secret of Fatima, which involved “a terrible cataclysm at the end of the century” as a result of people failing to repent.
The week before we had visited the Basilica di San Francesco, which was built after St. Francis’ death and severely shaken by the earthquakes. Two priests and two engineers were killed when portions of the vaulted ceiling fell on them. “A few minutes more and the whole thing would have come down,” an injured bystander said.
The four-storey complex sits like a sore thumb at the west end of Assisi, once a place of execution called the Hill of Hell. Now it is referred to as the Hill of Paradise. An odd location for a sacred place of pilgrimage. Deep inside, St. Francis’ bones are locked away in a sepulcher, the immense weight of the Basilica—a place he would have hated—weighing down on top of him.
Brother Daniel, a Franciscan monk from Buffalo, New York, thinks that the earthquake was “a call for us to return to rebuilding our church, as St. Francis did, a spiritual rebuilding in a time of greed and battling.” Bombers flew over on their way to Kosovo. As we walked under what remains of the Giotto and Cimabue frescoes, Brother Daniel reminded us that the root word for obedience means “to listen.”
To St. Francis, obedience suggested surrender, not dominance and war; self-discipline, rather than bowing down to authority. Every day, every mile traveled, brought a new understanding of just how much discipline it took to live with nothing. Everything in the culture countermanded such a notion. The walled cities of medieval Italy were fixed universes, bastions of defense, outlets for commerce, which had been built out of fear. By turning his back on the religious status quo, St. Francis began to take the roof off thirteenth-century superstition, stasis and violence by sticking to the open road and welcoming whatever came his way. His was not a human-centric theism, but one which encompassed all things—animate and inanimate—under what he must have visualized as the expanding umbrella of God. His previous enthusiasms for war, wine, women and song transmigrated into a divine intoxication with the natural world.
Hunted animals sought refuge at his side. A pheasant and a rabbit followed him like dogs, as well as a goat and a hawk. During cold snaps he set out honey for bees to eat. He talked to flowers when they came into bloom. Sparrows rode his body like a moving tree, catching rides up and down mountains. Animals swam to him when he retreated to a tiny island in Lago Trasimeno. In the Rieti Valley south of Assisi, a fisherman offered St. Francis his catch and the fish came alive, wiggling in St. Francis’ hands, refusing to die.
Followers said they saw light wherever he went, that sometimes his body was lifted up in a silver cloud. By seeing into the essential nature of things, St. Francis opened the door for things and animals to see into him. No skin, no feather, no bloodbarriers existed. He used mountains and rivers for words, and owl-songs and bear-grunts for prayers. His rapturous prayer, “The Canticle of Brother Sun,” was a celebration of that commingling.
It would be a mistake to think that St. Francis lived a life of solitude. Quite the opposite. Bernard, Giles, Sylvester, Bonaparte, Leo and Elias—all joined St. Francis and together they formed a brotherhood, walking two by two around Italy, Spain, France and Switzerland, preaching and praying, or else meditating in the carceri on Mt. Subasio or living together in the little shacks beside the chapel at the Portiuncula in the Spoleto Valley. Francis hated the hypocritical moroseness of formal church life with its tomb-like cathedrals and its common assignment of sin and guilt, and forbade sadness in his presence, urging laughter and singing, along with a hefty dose of discipline and a stricture to keep their vows. Walking tirelessly, they kicked discursive thought aside (books were forbidden) and lived the wide awake.
We walked higher and higher. The Apennine Mountains glistened in the northeast. Under melting snow, green grass showed through and sun came as bright darts stabbing clouds. On a north-facing slope, waist-high snowbanks stretched across the road; our footsteps through them left black holes, like eyes, looking for the next season.
If St. Francis was hard on himself, he was kind to others. He refused to shake off the icicles that hung from his robes cutting his legs. Yet, when one young follower cried of hunger in the middle of the night, instead of reprimanding the young monk for his lack of discipline, St. Francis woke the others and prepared a feast which they spent the rest of the night eating.
Walking through the mountains we stumbled on a restaurant with no name. There were cracks in the stone wall and the fireplace smoked. When we asked the old woman who cooked there what she thought the earthquakes meant, she waved her hand nonchalantly and said, “They came because the earth had to move.” Later, when she heard Tony’s infectious laughter, she came running from the kitchen. Clasping his face between her hands, she said, “Happy people are helping God do his work.”
Rain came in heavy curtains and undulated across stippled peaks. A darkness had escaped from the dripping grottos of the Eremo Carceri and had lumbered into the middle of the sky. Unable to bear its own weight, it had fallen again, tamping my shoulders. The pencil-point cypress were stirred by gusts of wind that bent their tips and straightened them again. If they could write something, what would they say? Two cars whizzed by, then the woodcutter’s truck passed, ladden with dried branches for cooking fires. The sky brightened and the sun was suddenly hot. Four gray and black birds the size of ravens took turns flying across a hayfield then returning. Rainwater washed back and forth between gathering clouds, then dropped as snow. A chill ran down my back. I pulled my hood up, clasped my hands together, and kept going.
We crossed the roiling Chiascio River on a high bridge and walked north. When St. Francis reached this point, he had to knock on the doors of the Benedictine monastery at St. Maria di Valfabrica where the monks were known to be aggressive and rude, because the river had overflowed its bank and was impassable. The monks grudgingly let him stay. He was lucky that his rapture was not seen as dangerous or delusional; the time had not yet come when the Inquisitors were burning heretics at the stake. A few days later, St. Francis walked north to La Bracaccia where he crossed the river by pole barge, then continued on toward Gubbio.
Pine-wind roared. We were on pavement now. As we followed a steep mountain road, sheep parted, letting us pass. At Casa Castalda, we turned left and took the gravel road northwest through Carbonesca to Colpalombo. The hayfields were steep. They looked like green cloths pinned to a blackboard. What was left of the oak forest was still brown-leafed, dormant, hiding patches of snow that had not yet seen the sun. A wild pig trotted by, bristling. Under my feet the flinty soil shattered into a thousand arrows pointing a hundred different ways.
St. Francis’ feet must have been calloused and torn. The thousands of miles he walked came to stand for the unending inward journey he was making. He believed that physical suffering would bring redemption. His tireless exertion propelled him toward the truth of the human condition which is suffering, and each footstep and heartbeat enlarged his capacity to understand.
As we climbed higher, the temperature dropped and the smell of snow stood in the air like an olfactory mountain. We took a shortcut through hayfields and trees, then came into a clearing: shoals of clouds shifted among reefs of light; the sky was an ocean and the storms came in waves. I thought of the blind man’s eyes, then of the terremotos of 1997: of the Basilica’s roof sections that fell, killing two priests, the frescoes of Giotto and Cimabue shaken into colored dust, and how this high spine of central Italy kept wiggling its back as if trying to shake something off—a blindness perhaps—to make room for a renewed Franciscan simplicity. I looked up. My mouth must have gone slack: a snowflake alighted on my tongue. TAKE. EAT. THIS IS MY BLOOD. . .
When St. Francis tromped across these hills, he called his own body “Ass,” and the donkey that sometimes accompanied him, “Brother.”
We stayed the night in a castle that had once given St. Francis sanctuary. He knew the owners; we did not. The old peasant who greeted us was corpulent and at nine a.m., red-faced with wine. He was splitting wood with a dull ax. The interior was frigid. We were taken up three flights of stairs by a young woman who spoke a bit of English. The room’s two immense arched windows faced north toward Gubbio. Had St. Francis been in this room? Had he plotted his trail from this aerie? The castle stood on the point of a hill and sloping down on all sides were verdant hayfields, olive groves, vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, and vineyards through which we strolled.
In the middle of the night a wheel of thunder threw hail at the window. Lightning showed the peaks of the Apennines one by one. Far to the north was La Verna, the mountain where the wounds that Jesus suffered on the cross—the stigmata—appeared on St. Francis’ body. Was his experience an agony or did the wounds simply appear? And how are we to think of them? Were they real or the result of a collective hallucination?
Three brothers had gone to La Verna with St. Francis, where they lived in caves and said their matins on a rocky ledge overlooking the valley. They spent a month meditating on the sufferings of Christ. On September 14, Brother Leo reported that a ball of light fell down on St. Francis’ head, and after, the marks of the crucifying nails in the hands and feet and the lance that pierced Christ’s side, showed on St. Francis’ body. At that moment, all of La Verna was enveloped with light. St. Francis had been hit by lightning.
The next day I walked in blackness. Storms lifted like hats, then slammed down again. Later, the mountains shone with a strange radiance. We walked into a valley and crossed a frothing stream whose hoarse voice cried out, “This way, he went this way.” We tumbled down, down. Sometimes the river shimmered on our right and our left—a brown god—churning chocolate, white, and red. Gubbio was just ahead. In the valley a chemical factory stood on the bank. Pavement began. The way to the walled city took us past more factories, then into suburbs.
Somewhere on this road St. Francis encountered the legendary wolf that had been killing people in Gubbio. Where does fiction end and truth begin? Does it make a difference? The townspeople begged St. Francis to help them with the malicious beast. When the wolf appeared somewhere on this once-forested road, St. Francis called to him. The wolf sat at the saint’s feet, lowered his head and wagged his tail. Francis implored the wolf to stop eating people. The wolf cocked his head, listening, then dociley trotted through the Porto Romano into town with his new friend. The townspeople were astonished. They made the wolf their pet. Everyone fed him and the wolf never ate a human again.
Approaching Gubbio, we lost our way. A man with a wolfish face gave us directions. We stayed in a thirteenth-century hotel near the top of town, from which everything flowed downhill like lava. Some days I thought of St. Francis as a living ember plucked from one of Italy’s volcanoes. These mountains were places of retreat for him: above Gubbio, and across several valleys to Le Celle near Cortona, where he had a pet hawk. Wandering from mountain to mountain, I began to feel his presence everywhere—bringing alive the dormant forests and stone cities that seemed so dead.
Sleep didn’t come easily that night. I was perched on the head of a pin at century’s end and didn’t know how to proceed. The medieval European mind was fixated on eternity and driven by notions of sin and mystery. Now, at the end of the twentieth century, we had traded in linear time for the ever-present Einsteinian time. Our weak link is not a Christian tragedy we are powerless to escape, but the nihilism of living in the ever-present Present. To find the path through a continuum takes another kind of imagination and tenacity.
All I knew was that the path moved. It was not a solid place but a continuous unfolding. It could be described as a place where everything changes, and is made of dirt, stone, space, light, twigs broken by hard winds, indentations where hailstones hit earth, hoofprints, bird tracks, and litter from humans passing.
If the path represents the intrinsic poverty and humbleness of all things, it is also a richness, functioning as a lens through which we can see things as they really are, without the embellishment of our ideas about them.
By the end of the week the temperature soared and a blue haze rose up from the valley where the farmers were burning pruned branches from vineyards and olive trees. A friend came for us and drove us back to Assisi. We entered through Porto Perlici and took Via Ruffino to the center of town. A woman in dark glasses, high heels and a mink coat walked her whippet. Two men, both tipsy, their car doors opened wide, stood listening to a CD of Frank Sinatra (his real name, of course, was Francis). In the Piazza del Comune, the Irish setter that always lay in front of the confectionery store was gone. Teenagers lounged on the steps of the Temple of Minerva. A waning moon tucked itself behind the Basilica di San Francesco like a bent knee.
By the time St. Francis reached his mid-forties, his pace had slowed. For the last two years of his life the stigmata were oozing sores, compounding a frailty already complicated with malaria, malnutrition, tuberculosis, rheumatism and what was probably glaucoma, which made it impossible for him to tolerate light. Brother Elias predicted that he would soon die. He rode his donkey down from the summit of La Verna and followed what is now the A1, the Autostrada, south toward Assisi. His final ride through Porto Giovani was on a palanquin because he was too weak to walk or ride. They brought him to San Stefano, a small church near the Piazza del Comune, but he begged to be taken down into the valley to his beloved Portiuncula.
There, his friends came and said goodbye. Ignoring his own ban on being in the presence of women, his last visitor was a woman. Her name was Giacoma dei Settesoli, and she had brought his favorite food: an almond cream frangipani which he ate with pleasure. After, his final request was honored: he was laid naked on the cold floor of the Portiuncula to die.
Assisi had originally been called Asceti, which means, “a place of rising.” St. Francis died on October 3rd, 1226. At the moment of death, light shone from his body and the bells at San Stefano began ringing spontaneously. The oak forests in the mountains where he loved to walk were dormant then, as now. I stared up at the endless series of peaks. The white eyelash on Mt. Subasio—all that was left of the previous week’s snow—had almost melted. Down in the valleys the fruit trees stood white with blossoms.
Spring weather is capricious, not unlike the way death comes. I thought of the pleasure St. Francis must have felt each time he hit the open road. He himself became the gate that changed and healed whoever passed through. Like Jesus and Gautama Buddha, the poet Matsuo Basho, and the great Ch’an masters of China and Japan, all teachings were given on the move, under an open sky. “We are not so much traveling as just stopping here and there,” Matsuo Basho said. They preferred the wabi-sabi of lean-to’s, large trees, bamboo, and rock huts. The divinity of a place rose up through the soles of their feet and went everywhere with them.
Poverty. Chastity. Obedience. Or else, simplicity, generosity, accommodation, love, and goodness within. That’s what St. Francis dedicated his life to and what we can still learn from him. Walking back to our rooms on a narrow street, Tony and I heard a roar. For a moment we thought it might be an earthquake—the day before there had been a tremor in the nearby town of Gualdo—but it was only distant thunder, another spring storm passing by.
I paused at the bottom of the stairs. Two parakeets were feeding each other water. Pots of primroses had been set out. The qualities I most cherished about St. Francis were these: Inexhaustible tenderness. Unconditional living.
A raindrop came out of the dark and hit my forehead—just one. An opening in the clouds revealed stars. I climbed the stairs to my room, cracked the window wide, and went to bed.
Gretel Ehrlich is a novelist, poet and essayist. She is the author of The Future of Ice and This Cold Heaven.
Conversations With My Son
Conversations With My Son
Mushim Ikeda-Nash traces her path as a parent through some of the humorous, poignant and penetrating conversations she's had over the years with her young son, Joshua.
To be a mother is sweet,
And a father.
It is sweet to live arduously,
And to master yourself.
O how sweet it is to enjoy life,
Living in honesty and strength!
One summer morning in 1983, during a three-month meditation retreat, I was assigned to sweep the sidewalk in front of the temple. The teacher, a strong-willed Korean monk, had declared “no talking,” and in the “silence” which we humans so often fill with chatter, I discovered a world rich with sensation: the fly that suddenly buzzed at the window, the hiss of a candle flame, the breath circling through my body—all felt equally alive and wonderful.
Using a heavy push broom, I worked my way down the sidewalk. A large black beetle, startled, leaped from a crack in the cement and scrambled across my path beneath the upswung broom. The sky went black, my body melted, there was an electrifying split-second in which I was simultaneously looking down at the beetle, and gazing up into a great darkness. Then, as if in a dream, I lifted the broom off the sidewalk and saw the beetle stagger, right itself, and run off. My heart was pounding, and tears of relief filled my eyes.
All beings want to live and be happy. A potent and inescapable truth had inscribed itself into every cell of my body. My life and the beetle’s were equal expressions of Life itself. We were distinct, yet we were one. We were vulnerable to one another, having changed roles and forms countless times in previous existences. We were intimate.
All beings want to live and be happy. From this realization emerges the first Buddhist precept: Not to kill, but to cherish all life. It has been said that the precepts, which some people first view as restrictions or commandments, are actually koans, unsolvable riddles that we must nevertheless answer in each moment. A few years later, possibly the greatest koan of my life was put to me in the unlikely setting of a Seventh Day Adventist Hospital in Seoul, Korea, where a kindly American doctor informed me that I was pregnant. My head shaven, dressed in the gray garments of a Buddhist nun, I had in my knapsack a few clothes, a small amount of cash, and the return half of a round-trip ticket, U.S.-South Korea. The situation was clearly impossible.
“Do you intend to keep the baby?” the doctor asked.
To my own astonishment, I answered immediately and without doubt. “Oh, yes!” I said. A second later, I thought, “I must be crazy. How can I do this?” And again the answer came strong and clear: “You can do this because now you are a mother.” To step forward, to join lay life, to embrace the human future, this was to be my spiritual path for many years. Yet, unlike the decision to begin monastic Zen training, this decision came easily, perhaps because I was not making it alone. Tiny but definite as a candle flame, my son had joined me. We would make our way together.
Practice continued. After returning to the U.S., I joined a household of Buddhist meditators, worked, and sat in meditation daily. When I was five and a half months pregnant, I traveled to Mt. Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel Mountains outside of Los Angeles to join Joshu Sasaki Roshi for the December Rohatsu sesshin, the annual Japanese Zen retreat celebrating the Buddha’s enlightenment. I knew that once my baby came, my opportunities to sit in the meditation hall would be limited.
During sesshin, all students lead the monk’s life, waking at 2:30 a.m. and proceeding through various rounds of sitting, chanting, formal meals, work, and so on, in a schedule timed to the minute. Each student meets privately in face-to-face interview with Sasaki Roshi several times a day. In this simple fashion, the seven days passed, with the last night being a time of continuous practice in honor of Shakyamuni Buddha’s effort.
Obviously an exception to the rule, I was well accommodated by the supportive staff. I slept in a private room, usually the infirmary, fairly close to one of the outdoor porta-toilets, and meditated in the “second zendo” across the path from the main zendo. I was by myself for long hours, joined occasionally by a member of the kitchen staff or other monks and nuns whose duties necessitated a departure from the main schedule. I could leave the zendo whenever I needed to use the toilet or rest, an unusual freedom that made the retreat feel very vast and spacious, almost playful.
Soon after the sesshin began, a heavy snowfall blanketed the mountain, piling up on the zendo roof, covering the path, and weighing down the branches of the pine trees. After the evening sitting ended, I would wait for the main zendo to empty, then carefully trudge down the icy path through the forest. The full moon lit my way; each step, and my koan, and the precious burden of my lively unborn child, became one with my visible breath. The entire snow-covered world felt silent and pregnant, alive with a minute circuitry of energy.
Over time, I felt a friendly relationship developing between myself and the meditators in the main zendo; I could hear the sticks clapping, bells ringing, and shuffling of feet from their building, and sometimes I stood outside and watched the black-robed figures doing walking meditation in the snow.
Joshua sat within me. Each morning in the sutra hall he would respond vigorously to the drum and gong accompanying the recitation of the Heart Sutra. During zazen he napped or turned in his warm, tidepool world. Despite the intense cold and the snow, I felt like a gardener in spring, watching a seed sprouting, pushing through soil into the sunlight, and growing leaf by leaf toward its flower. I spoke to my son, conversations that were long and companionable, wordless and profound.
“How do you manifest Oneness with baby?” Sasaki Roshi asked. His round face glowed with happiness and maternal pride; the tiny room was warm and womblike, within the larger body of the snowy mountain. The koan was intimate; I felt it rumbling and turning inside me, opening into the future where, moment by moment, I would demonstrate my practice through more than a thousand days of breastfeeding, diaper-changing, and the demands of single-mothering. Sasaki Roshi’s enthusiasm was unwavering; he demonstrated with simplicity and clarity the quintessential Zen ability to seize my situation as the perfect situation in which to practice, as I believe he would have if I had come to him saying that I had cancer, AIDS, no money, a great deal of money, or whatever. The ability to accept and love one’s difficulties—that was the key.
Joshua is now almost eleven years old. We have lived in Oakland, California with Chris, my husband and Josh’s adoptive father, since Josh was two years old. In 1993, when we were married in a beautiful Buddhist ceremony, Chris held Josh in his arms at the altar, and all three of us vowed to honor one another as a “family within the Dharma.” To me, this vow meant learning how to support each other’s spiritual growth and happiness for the rest of our lives, through good times and bad. Our choosing to become a family meant a commitment to listen to one another with our entire beings, and to try to speak to one another with honesty, courage and respect.
Josh and I talk to each other every single day, sometimes briefly, sometimes at great length. We touch base several times a day in order to joke around, tell stories, problem-solve and strategize, exchange insights, and offer encouragement. “You must educate baby!” Sasaki Roshi had admonished me. I took his words greatly to heart, and since that time I can truly say that my entire practice has been oriented toward providing a spiritual education for my son, an environment in which I hope to communicate clarity, love, and inner strength. But like every parent, sometimes I fail miserably.
It was during one of the hard times that I learned Josh had developed spiritual resources of his own. He was around five, his world already shadowed by my mother’s recent diagnosis of large cell lymphoma. He had been crabby and demanding all day, and I was exhausted and irritable. Finally, my patience crumbled all at once, like a sandbank caving in, and the terror of my mother’s cancer overwhelmed me. I turned on my son, yelling something so unexpected and hurtful that he reeled backward as though I had struck him in the face, and ran from the room. Although I had been angry with him many times before, this time I had completely lost control. I expected to hear sobbing, but instead there was complete silence.
What have I done? I thought. As a baby, Josh had breastfed for the first three years of his life, and he often slept with Chris and me, nestled in the crook of my arm. Throughout his life he had always turned to me in times of distress; I was his first refuge from pain, fatigue, anxiety. Remorseful and ashamed, I went to Josh’s room and found him sitting upright on his bed, his legs crossed, and his hands placed in Zen mudra position. His small body was trembling all over, but he was trying to calm himself by sitting in the meditation posture. When other things, including me, had failed, he had already developed his own sense of how to return to wholeness. He was growing up.
Riding in his car seat to preschool one morning, Josh was quiet, thinking. “Mom,” he said, “I don’t want you to become an old woman and die.”
“Are you worried about that?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I understand how you feel,” I told him. “Sometimes I feel that way too. But try not to worry so much. Mom will take care of you for a long time.”
Because of my mother’s illness, our conversations during this period often touched upon change and death. After graduating from preschool, Josh became anxious about kindergarten, and complained vehemently that he was unhappy about the upcoming transition. For some weeks I reassured and reasoned, then said, “Just forget about kindergarten! You’ve got the whole summer ahead of you.”
“I can’t forget about it,” Josh said stubbornly. “My mind sticks to it.”
“That’s called attachment,” I said. “You know, like Velcro, or a burr when it sticks to you and won’t come off.”
After another week of his worrying, I suggested that a calming herbal tea might help. But Josh refused the tea. “My brain tells me I don’t want to do that,” he explained. “My brain is sticking to my idea of worrying, and my idea is like a plant on a stand.”
Chris, who loves to garden, matter-of-factly suggested that some plants were weeds, and needed to be killed. I shot him a stern glance, then said to Josh, “We don’t want to kill your idea, but we want to move it. Some plants need to be moved so that they can grow better in a new place.”
“My plant doesn’t want to be moved,” Josh said. That seemed clear, and although it was difficult, we let him continue to express his feelings. The summer passed, and soon after school started he was happy and comfortable.
Sometimes we discussed other things that had disturbed us. One morning that summer, on our way to Josh’s summer art class, we passed a particularly bright, beautiful orange flower growing between the sidewalk and the street curb in Berkeley. Josh didn’t usually pay much attention to flowers, but this one immediately attracted him, and he ran to it with a cry of joy. After the class was over, I picked him up and we saw a group of teenagers, shouting and jostling one another, coming towards us. Passing the flower, we discovered it had been snapped off and thrown on the sidewalk.
“Why did someone do this, Mom?” Josh asked on the way home.
“Sometimes people are destructive or careless,” I said.
“But Mom,” Josh said accusingly, “I thought you said that everyone has a buddha inside!”
“Well, according to Buddhist teachings, that is true, but everyone’s buddha is not awake,” I said. “Their buddha could be asleep.”
Josh thought for a long time in silence. Then he said, “I think those people were not aware of the feelings of the buddha inside themselves.”
Of all our conversations, the ones in which Josh and I discussed my parents’ deaths were probably the most important. Recovering from a major loss is a slow, organic process, and a bereavement counselor at a nearby hospice told me that children are sometimes called “the forgotten mourners,” because many adults feel so uncomfortable with grief that they do not allow children to grieve.
It took an entire year before Josh was ready to have a long conversation about my father’s death, though it was clear during that time that some of the frustration and stress he expressed about other things was grief-related. It wasn’t an easy subject for me, either. For years, my father had driven everyone in the family crazy with his fixation on collecting “free” things, like gas station paper towels and coffee creamer packets. My parents’ garage and basement resembled a landfill, and Dad had taken to wearing an Army surplus camouflage jacket so that he could stuff his treasures into the inner pockets more easily. He was paranoid and sometimes abusive.
I had always told my seven-year-old son that Grandpa’s strange behaviors were the result of “brain sickness,” my way of describing senile dementia. “Grandpa may have been brain-sick,” Josh once commented, “but at least he had the compassion to love me.” Josh and I were visiting him in Virginia when he died, peacefully and unexpectedly, in his sleep one night in the spring of 1996.
It was in February 1997, when Josh and I were sitting and eating sorbet together, that he finally brought up the topic of Grandpa’s death.
“Seeing his body wasn’t something I would have most preferred to do, but it wasn’t so bad, either,” Josh said. He mashed the sorbet with his spoon and stared at it. “Anyway, I knew he wasn’t in that body,” he continued.
“You mean his spirit had gone?” I asked.
“Yes. And he died peacefully. Before he died, he became very, very clear. He understood everything.”
I had never heard such a tender note in my son’s voice. It was a very private moment between us, as we remembered the surprising grace that my dad had manifested in the last few days of his life. He had spent long hours sitting quietly on the living room couch, or chatting in a sweet way with Josh and with me. Two days before he died, he told me that he was drafted into the U.S. Army near the end of World War II, separated from the other men, and sworn in separately, in a back room, because he was Japanese American. I had a deep sense that my father, who had been angry all his life, was letting go of his bitterness with an ease I would never have predicted.
“Yes,” I said to Josh, “you’re right. I believe that Grandpa did understand everything at the end.”
We talked more about what we remembered from that time. Josh was angry that the funeral home men hadn’t wanted Josh to see them removing my father’s body from his house. We sat together at the kitchen table in silence. I could feel that my son, who had grieved in his own way for many months, was completing his journey of healing as we sat there. It was an extraordinary and intimate sensation, like watching an insect complete metamorphosis. And this conversation changed something in me, also. I remembered suddenly how much my father had loved me.
Josh sighed. “The world brings us many things,” he said gently.
I love having conversations with Josh and his friends, and I talk to kids whenever I get the chance. Kids are working hard even while they are playing, learning the skills that will take them into adulthood. They need private time with their peers, but they also need to talk to adults who care about them and who are interested in their ideas and feelings.
Often I think my most important job as a mother is simply this: that I be available to listen and talk to my son on a daily basis. I’m talking about the kind of conversation where you set everything else aside, sit down, and look each other in the eye. Over the years, like the Walrus and the Carpenter, Josh and I have spoken of many things: video games, sex, slime molds, Gandhi, multiplication tables, violence, and genetically engineered vegetables. We argue, we joke, and sometimes we fight. In many ways, I think of the last eleven years as one long conversation with Joshua, starting from the first moment I learned I was pregnant. We begin our day with conversation, and end with “I love you” at bedtime.
What I’ve learned most in talking to Joshua has been that if I risk speaking from my heart, then often it frees him to respond in kind. The morning after my mother finally died of cancer, Josh and I sat in bed together, while Chris rustled around the kitchen, making breakfast.
“I’m relieved Grandma was able to die,” I said. “And, you know, Josh, all I can think of are those words on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s gravestone. Remember? Free at last! Free at last!”
Josh rolled over in the bedding and said, firmly, “We don’t have to be free at last. We are free already. And we don’t want to be freed from freedom.” He hugged me, and we got up to eat our breakfast.
Portions of this piece were adapted from “Talking to Joshua,” published in Dharma Family Treasures, North Atlantic Books, 1994. © 2000 Patricia Ikeda-Nash.
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