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The Biggest Party Ever (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

The Biggest Party Ever

As a child, HOWARD AXELROD dreamed of a festival that everyone in the world attended. Now he realize that it's been happening all along.

Through third and fourth grade, I had a recurring fantasy, though I thought of it as a project. Night after night, surrounded by my retinue of stuffed animals, I’d lie awake elaborating and refining. No dreams of tree houses for me, no plans of revenge on my older brother. Just my nightly planning for the World Festival.

Everybody in the world would be there. Everybody. Vast portions of the Earth would be left uninhabited: Boston, New York City, China. No one on any of the playgrounds. No one in any of the stores. No cars on the highways. No nightly news. No school. No piano lessons. Just every house in every town waiting for the people to come back, for life to be filled back in. But filled back in with something new, something that made everything make sense.

The more impossible the festival seemed, the more important it felt. Trying to imagine it would keep me awake—not just the hum of everyone coming together, but also all the questions. Where would the festival be held? The Nebraska/Kansas area seemed like a good bet: it was centrally located on the map at school, and not much other than a little husked-corn icon seemed to be there. Maybe Missouri and South Dakota could be used as parking lots. What kind of entertainment would there be? It would have to be music, that way there’d be no problem with people not speaking the language. But whatever the entertainment was, we’d have to set up giant screens so everyone, especially the kids, could see. What about bathrooms? Imagine the lines at the port-a-potties. And food? We’d need more than a few ice cream trucks. And what about sick people? We’d have to build hospitals. And babies being born? More hospitals. And how could we make sure that everyone, everyone, everyone got there? The men waving the glowing sticks who helped land the planes would have to be the last ones onto the shuttle buses. And would people bring pets? We couldn’t have dogs and cats abandoned all around the world, howling in empty houses and fields.

So there were a few logistical details to work out. But night after night, safe in my bed, with the lights of soon-to-be-uninhabited Boston winking in the distance, I’d plan the buses and bridges and health stations, the giant booths for lost kids to find their parents, maybe even enormous domes of Jiffy Pop popped on heated ponds. This wasn’t just going to be the biggest party ever, some kind of birthday party for the world. It was supposed to give everyone something.

It was supposed to give a shared feeling, one that made all the logistical problems unimportant, a feeling that would rise up, almost like a scent or a faint hum that everyone could hear. It would give an understanding of what it meant to live on Earth. Because with everything else taken out of the picture, with no school, no schedules, and no piano lessons, and with everybody in the same place more or less doing the same thing, what other feeling could there possibly be?

 

This past Fourth of July, having not thought about it for years, I was reminded of the World Festival. On a grassy hill just outside Boston, a crowd had gathered to watch the fireworks. Dogs nosed in the cool grass; toddlers wobbled after soccer balls. We were too far away to hear the Boston Pops Orchestra, which was performing the usual Fourth of July brassy fare, but no one seemed to mind. Dusk turned the sky deep blue; couples on their blankets turned into silhouettes. Children ran chasing whatever children chase, paused to nuzzle close to their parents, then resumed chasing. Eventually, with the sky gone almost as dark as the trees, the fireworks began. Great blossoms of light. Starburst after starburst, scintillating showers falling toward the earth, it was otherworldly but not otherworldly. It was friendly, too, because we knew the show was man-made and designed for our enjoyment.

But then something strange happened. The big finale ended, and within sixty seconds, there was a kind of stampede. Grass kicked up, blankets trampled, voices louder than they’d been the entire night. Every couple or family its own little army again, retreating. Parents wanted to get kids to bed. No one wanted to be caught in traffic. We were not a group anymore. With the spectacle over, it was as though everyone had instantly forgotten that the evening had been beautiful before the fireworks—that, indeed, perhaps what had made the fireworks so beautiful was the feeling that had grown on the hillside while we were all waiting. 

Trying to recover some of that feeling, I found myself on the drive home comforted by a strange thought. There were a lot of people on the sidewalks, returning to their cars from one viewing place or another, and it struck me that all of us had seen the same thing. We’d all been watching the sky at the same time. It was our common point of reference. Which is what made me think of the World Festival. Not everyone in the world had been there, but hundreds of thousands of Bostonians had been. We’d all enjoyed the same performance, and it had happened on a screen everyone could see, because that screen was the sky.

How often did something like that happen?

It took a moment, but then it dawned on me: pretty often. Millions of people have watched the same TV show, the same YouTube video, the same movie on Netflix. Having a common point of reference was nothing new. It was just that our original common point of reference, the sky, had been moved inside, to smaller screens.

It was kind of ingenious, if you thought about it. The World Festival was a logistical nightmare. But if you couldn’t bring everyone to the show, why not bring the show to everyone? You still knew you were watching what everyone else was watching. You could still talk about it with everyone afterward; you just had to post your comments online. You never had to wonder where you’d parked your car. And you never had to wait in line at the port-a-potty. You could have all the feeling of belonging without any of the discomfort of gathering. All of the community, none of the hassle. All of the connection, none of the vulnerability.

The World Festival was happening. You just had to tune in.

 

The word absurd comes from the Latin surdus, which means deaf. This suggests that if you can’t hear the wind moving in the treetops or the fall of your own footsteps on the ground, your life can’t help but become disengaged from meaning. Imagine walking deep into a forest with no sounds, no branches snapping underfoot, no cries of far-off birds, only the phantom rhythm of your own breath. 

The link between the senses and our orientation in the world isn’t just etymology or metaphor. Modern studies suggest that alienated people feel detached from their senses; they also suggest that feeling detached from our senses can make us feel alienated.

The most obvious sense we need for contact with the world is touch. Studies show that a baby needs to be held, to feel its body against something, preferably its mother, to locate itself in space and feel secure. Gentle touch from anyone or anything, even from a swaddling blanket, helps babies stay healthy. Take away that touch, and a baby shows distress—the inability to gain weight, a quickening of heart rate, a depressed immune system, fitful crying. You could argue this is simply an evolutionary adaptation: the baby wails, the mother tends to him, the baby has a better chance of survival. But in experiments with monkeys, when a mother’s touch was removed and then returned, even though the baby monkey eventually grew calm, its body remained more susceptible to disease, which clearly isn’t an evolutionary advantage. My bet is this response isn’t just the trauma of lost love or lost nourishment, but the trauma of lost orientation on the most primal level: a sense of spatial abandonment from which the body never quite recovers. As much as the trauma might be said to be psychological, that psychological aspect starts in the baby’s body, which has already begun to need a physical, sensory trust with the world.

 

On July fifth, I talked to my father on the phone. He’d watched the fireworks on his iPad. “Quite spectacular,” he said. “Gets more elaborate every year, doesn’t it?” There was nothing unusual about his comments. He probably would have said the very same thing had he been there in person.

But something was missing. And I felt that gap all the more keenly because there seemed no prospect of explaining to him what I’d experienced, as he assumed we’d more or less experienced the same thing. So I tried to imagine the Fourth of July on a screen, rather than in the sky. There was no touch—no feel of the grass on my bare feet, no evening breeze on the back of my neck. No faint smell of musty blankets and trodden grass, no waft of fried chicken from the family picnicking next to me. And while there was sound with the screen, it was only the booming of the fireworks and the professional wonder of the commentators, not the dimensional murmur of the hundreds of people around me, a murmur that revealed the contours of the hill in the summer dark and gave a kind of human shape to the wonder—a wonder that included everyone there, even if the little girl’s commentary on the blanket in front of me, “that’s my favorite, that’s my favorite,” wasn’t the same as mine. 

And yes, the screen had vision—it probably even afforded a closer look at the fireworks: vivid shots of the hot light catching the trailing white smoke, beautifully composed frames with the Boston skyline in the background, an American flag waving in the breeze. But on the screen, there was no way for me to turn and see the shifting colors reflected in the slightly greasy, utterly dazzled, upturned faces of the fried-chicken family, or to see the little girl nuzzling close to her father during the finale, or to look out over the entire crowd and toward the Boston skyline and feel at once my similarity and my difference from everyone, to appreciate, for better or for worse, that I was part of the group.

I understand why my father stayed home, why he watched on his iPad. He has a bum ankle, and crowds are tricky for him. Uneven hillsides present a real danger, especially with overstimulated kids racing around in the dark. And I understand, more generally, why people spend so many hours a day looking at their smartphones. Each one is a ticket to the World Festival, promising to keep us informed, included, a part of everything that’s going on.

Yet I also understand why I stopped fantasizing about the World Festival years ago. Part of it was that other fantasies, usually involving a girl and some privacy, became more pressing. But part of it was that it occurred to me that the space it would take to hold the World Festival was the space of the world itself. And the festival was already occurring—with hospitals, bathrooms, ice cream trucks, lost children, people dying, people being born. Granted, there was no opening speech, no clear reminder that a festival was in progress, no articulated spirit of why we were all here. But maybe that was for the best. Maybe answering that question for yourself—or not answering it, but simply wondering about it every now and then, feeling it in what you heard and saw and smelled and tasted and touched—was the most important part of being here. 




Howard Axelrod has written for
The New York Times Magazine, Harvard Magazine, and The Boston Globe. He recently completed a memoir, The Point of Vanishing, about the two years he lived in solitude in northern Vermont.

Ilustration(s) by Tomi Um.

From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Prepare Now (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

Prepare Now

Death can come at any time, so the Buddha warned us to get ready now. Knowing that helped Buddhist teacher Allan Lokos after a terrible plane crash. ROD MEADE SPERRY has his story.

Did meditation save Allan Lokos’s life?

Well, there was this one time. The short of it: an indigestion-type feeling hit one evening, was noted but not much worried about. Next thing Lokos knew, he was on the floor of his bathroom at 5 a.m. He was rushed to the ER, where it was guessed that he was in atrial fibrillation, putting him at risk of a stroke.

As he was waiting to be seen, it occurred to him: “What could be a better place for meditation?” So he set to it. Finally, when he was examined, it seemed that Lokos had, thanks to the practice, brought his heart back to normal function. He was given tests and prescriptions but, sure enough, was declared recovered in a few weeks.

It’s a great story, nice and neat. Did meditation help? It seems reasonable to think so.

But then, there was this other time, in Burma, on Christmas Day, 2012. Lokos laughingly encapsulates it this way: “It was a trip I wanted to go on, and I loved it. Except for one little thing!”

 

It’s Marathon Sunday morning on New York’s Upper West Side. A cool hush is in the autumn air. The neighborhood is extra quiet, ground transport having been snarled up in much of the city. I arrive at the Community Meditation Center (CMC) no problem and am greeted by Susanna Weiss, Allan Lokos’s spouse and, as he’s put it, “perfect partner.” She’s natural and charming, and maybe even a bit familiar, to a film fan at least: the actress Laura Dern is a dead ringer for her.

Because of the traffic, Weiss tells me, some die-hard seniors and other regulars may not be able to make it to CMC this morning, so attendance could be way down; it tops out at about two hundred sometimes. She warmly invites me to meet Lokos.

Automatically, I thrust out my hand and shake his, but my sense of touch quickly sends a message to my brain: This is not the time for a firm handshake. Both of Lokos’s hands are in bandage-like glove contraptions. I hope I haven’t hurt him.

I leave him to a moment with himself before he gives today’s teaching at 11:30. The room seems to be filling up nicely. Halloween decorations are still up—a green witch will stir a cauldron behind Lokos as he talks—and people are festive, talky, upbeat. By 11:28, fifty have arrived, including some of the die-hard seniors, who are joined by visitors of all ages from their twenties on up.

“Let me catch my breath,” the seventy-three-year-old teacher quips, having just taken his seat. “That marathon’s quite a race.” Then he begins his guided meditation, which includes references to gratitude for the body. “Isn’t it amazing that breathing just happens on its own?” he says. “How wonderful to have this body that supports this practice of mindfulness.”

Coming from him, it means a lot.

 

Which brings us to that trip to Burma and the “one little thing” that went wrong.

Lokos, Weiss, and sixty-nine others were taking a short in-country flight on a Fokker 100, a small plane but not quite a puddle jumper; the numeral denotes its number of seats. There seemed to be nothing unusual with this flight. Then, with essentially no warning, the plane crashed.

One of the passengers, a woman from California, later recalled looking out and seeing a blue flash, which was likely the plane shearing through electrical wires with its wings. And since the fuel was stored in the wings, they immediately burst into flames. But Lokos didn’t see any of that, so when Weiss first told him they’d crashed, he thought she was overreacting. There had not even been a “Fasten your seatbelts” sign.

Lokos turned to Weiss, and by the time he turned back—it was that fast—heavy noxious smoke was pouring in and chaos was overtaking the cabin.

There was an emergency exit, but it was on the other side of all that smoke, and Weiss was already feeling the poisonous effects. She didn’t think she could make the jump to safety. “You’re going to go right through it,” Lokos told her. “You’ll be okay.”

Lokos gave Weiss a push and intended to follow right after her, but his foot caught on something. “From that moment to when I landed on the ground outside the plane,” he says, “all of it is blocked out of my memory, which my trainer, Nancy, ascribes to ‘the benevolent brain.’ But, clearly, I was on fire in that time.”

The plane had crashed in an abandoned rice field. More than half of the passengers were spared serious injury. Two died. And then there was Lokos. A pair of teenaged boys tried to help him after he’d escaped the plane, but he was too big for them to handle. Two men—one of them the husband of the Californian woman—stepped in. “They had to drag me because I couldn’t walk,” Lokos says. “As I looked up, I saw the faces of all these spectators. They looked horrified.”

Then he looked down and saw why. “There were large sheets of skin hanging off of me. But I have no memory of being scared by any of it; I was probably well into shock at that point.”

It was then that Lokos turned to the man from California. “Those people look really scared,” he said. “I must look awful.” “Oh, no,” the man replied. “It’s really just like a bad sunburn. You’re fine.”

It was a kind, comforting thing to say. But it was, of course, not true. Lokos was in grave danger. His legs were seriously burned, especially the ankles, which had been burned right to the bone. “Exactly how my hands got so damaged, I don’t know,” he says. “I never knew that I was close to dying. I never even thought I was injured, never thought about it. Now, as my trauma therapist says, my body knew. I was on fire!

Lokos also suffered burns on his head and neck, and part of one ear was lost. “It now looks like I have a deep eye socket,” he says. “See that line of red? That’s how close the flames came to that eye, right to the socket. Two weeks ago Susanna asked me if I wanted to see the clothes that I was wearing at the time. They were just shreds.”

Immediately after the accident, a doctor on the scene assessed things this way: “There’s nothing we can do for him.” When Lokos was moved from Burma to a hospital in Bangkok, doctors there concurred. Then the same happened in Singapore, and once more back in New York. All told, six doctors would tell Weiss, who’d suffered seven broken vertebrae in the crash herself, that Lokos’s prognosis was hopeless. When one flatly told her, “This man won’t live,” she replied, “You don’t know this man.”

Finally, two doctors—a Dr. Tan in Singapore and a brilliant New York surgeon named Dr. Yurt—saw not only the Lokos that Weiss knew but also the potential for turning things around.

 

Lokos counts Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mingyur Rinpoche, and others among his teachers, but the path was not always so clearly delineated for him; in fact, he didn’t come to Buddhism until late in life. As a native New Yorker growing up in Brooklyn, he was raised in a family that was, as he puts it, “once-a-year Jewish,” though his mother’s side was both very religious and wonderful. “That’s where the joy was in my early childhood,” he says. “But—and I think this really plays into where I ended up—my mother died when I was sixteen and my father was mentally ill, bipolar.”

His father was arrested repeatedly, and Lokos and his brother were eventually called to his apartment to intervene; he had pinned a woman down and was over her with an axe. He was arrested one last time and died in the forensic ward nine days later.

Whether despite or because of such difficulty, the young Lokos found himself drawn to beauty. He began exploring the arts, in particular singing. (This can be no surprise to anyone who’s heard his sonorous voice and impeccable diction.) “I studied with Madeline Marshall, who was teaching at Julliard and was the great English language teacher at the Met,” Lokos says. “She literally wrote the book on how to sing in English. I used to cut all my classes at Brooklyn College so I could go to rehearsals. This teacher said, ‘Why don’t you go to a school where your classes are rehearsals?’”

A career was born, with Lokos performing on Broadway and loving it, as well as the lifestyle that came with it. It wasn’t lucrative, he says, but “I did lots and lots of raucous carrying on and having fun.” Later, wanting more, he and Weiss decided to pursue careers as ministers fostering harmony in post-9/11 New York. The interfaith group they founded wouldn’t last, yet the ministry experience would eventually lead to CMC’s birth in 2007, and training for it was what ultimately put Lokos onto the Buddhist path.

It’s often said that people come to the dharma because of suffering, but that wasn’t quite it for Lokos. “I was suffering as much as anybody else,” he claims, “but even in seminary, I never understood why the word was used so much.”

Instead, Lokos says he felt the pull of a more positive allure: “Part of the study program to be a minister was that a practitioner from each of the world’s religions would come and chat with us. And when this Buddhist fellow came in and began to speak, he brought this sense of calm and joy I really hadn’t seen before! That was in 1998, and I was about fifty-seven. He asked me, ‘My teacher is coming to the United States. Why don’t you come on retreat with us?’ So I did.” That teacher, Lokos’s first, was Thich Nhat Hanh.

Today, the connection to calm and joy remains. He says, “I’m often asked what about this path appealed to me so much. It’s just, life works better. It’s easier. It’s more fun.”

 

After the crash, Lokos endured surgery after surgery, graft after graft, with fantastic results. He seems awed, still, by all that’s happened, and without self-pity. But more than that, he seems appreciative.

“The body is unbelievable,” he tells me, smiling. “It’s incredible—this is all healing. When I came home, I could not turn on my electric toothbrush. The first time I did, we celebrated! The nerves are regenerating right now, which is painful, but also sort of miraculous because if they aren’t regenerating, then the hands are dead. So I try to rejoice in the fact that I’m getting a lot of pain in my hands. I could stop working on my legs right now, because I can walk—I could probably dance if I had to—but we’re continuing with these pressure garments that I’m wearing.” (They’re like the zippered, tipless gloves he wears, only covering his legs.)

“As difficult as things were for us, I think a lot of positive is coming out of it… will come out of it,” Lokos says. “The big thing that dominates all of my thinking right now is that there is this opportunity. In no way was I looking for it—certainly, not in the way I got it!—but there is now this opportunity to be able to reach people like I never could before. Quite frankly, if I had been in an automobile crash and injured exactly the same way, nobody would be interested. Practically everyone’s been in an auto crash. But ‘airplane crash’ grabs everybody’s attention. We had a group of attorneys come here, and when we were all finished, one of them said to me, tearfully, ‘This has been fantastic to meet with you. Usually we only get to meet with the families.’” 

And word gets around. Now when Lokos meets new people, they often tell him, “Oh, I’ve heard about you.” “So there is an opportunity here,” he says, “and I just hope I can be equal to it. I’m in uncharted waters.

 “The twist,” Lokos adds, “is that I will no longer only be teaching someone else’s teachings. Great teacher though I do follow—the Buddha—I have now been ‘in the fire’ for real, and have been among people who have been suffering in a real sense. Susanna reached a point—and she has spoken about this openly—of saying, ‘I now know that there can be something worse than death; we would’ve been better off if we had been killed.’ So suffering is no longer theory and philosophy. And I’m not through the flames yet. I’m still sitting in them.

“My life focus is around studying and teaching the dharma and writing,” Lokos continues. Indeed, Through Fire, which follows up his 2011 book, Patience, is well under way. “I want to help people realize that the last thing the Buddha said is very important: ‘Prepare now.’”

 

So, did meditation save Allan Lokos’s life a second time?

In a word: No. Lokos recalls that soon after the accident, his dear friend and mentor Sharon Salzberg advised him, “You shouldn’t be meditating.” It was as simple as that, Lokos explains. “I had no concentration whatsoever, and it wouldn’t have been wise to introduce an additional struggle at that time.”

But is it possible that meditation practice helped him in his recovery?

“That’s the first thing people usually ask,” he concedes. “Maybe that’s where I had one leg up—that, due to practice, I’m not under as much stress as a nonpractitioner might be. I think the way the research about these things puts it is that there is no illness or condition that is not made worse by stress. None! So if we’re dealing with less stress, we have a better chance.”

Wrapping up my visit with Lokos and Weiss, I ask about that comment she’d made to the doctor who’d said Lokos wouldn’t make it: “You don’t know this man.” What did Weiss know that the doctor didn’t?

“I don’t tend to quit,” Lokos offers. “Rather, I become more intrigued. I’ve discussed this with my trauma therapist—that I don’t really think that you can actually quit. And she said, ‘But you can turn bitter.’ And that’s what happens—a part of you quits. That doesn’t interest me.

“I don’t think I was in a plane crash for any reason other than I happened to be sitting on that plane. I’m very much a believer in ‘things arise out of causes and conditions.’ It was all my choice to be there; I don’t regret that choice—I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.”

Lokos and Weiss even flew again, on the one-year anniversary of the crash, to see family. “I think it’s good to do those things, you know,” he says.

“But it was not remarkable. Flying into Cleveland is not usually remarkable. Even the anniversary couldn’t change that.”

 

Rod Meade Sperry is the associate editor of the Shambhala Sun and the editor of the new anthology A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation: Practical Advice and Inspiration from Contemporary Buddhist Teachers.




Read the rest of this article inside the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Photo(s) by Donna Svennevik.


The Buddhas of West 17th (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

EXCERPT

The Buddhas of West 17th


The art, spirituality, and ideas of the Himalayas meet the best of the modern world at New York's Rubin Museum. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, we showcase art from the collection and dialogues featuring LAURIE ANDERSON, MARTIN SCORSESE, SHARON SALZBERG, the late PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN, and many more.

Located in the fashionable Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, the Rubin Museum is not just the world’s leading museum dedicated to the ideas, cultures, and art of the Himalayas. It’s also a hot spot of innovative, contemporary programming. It was founded a decade ago by the husband-and-wife team of Donald and Shelley Rubin, philanthropists and art collectors who donated well over a thousand pieces from their personal collection. As Donald Rubin says, “We have always seen art as a source of joy, inspiration, and healing. I also see it as a means of positive social change and cultural education.” Today, under the leadership of Tim McHenry, the museum’s director of public programs and performances, the Rubin offers a unique combination of art exhibits, contemporary cultural events, and dialogues that bring together diverse voices exploring topics from happiness to neuroscience to The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Celebrating its tenth anniversary, the Shambhala Sun presents a sampling of the stimulating dialogues the Rubin Museum has hosted and the extraordinary art it has showcased.

 



A Question of Freedom

Artist/musician Laurie Anderson & Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness

Laurie Anderson: When you move through your life, you have your schtick about who are you. You have your stories.

So I had my style and people would say, “That’s your style,” but your style is a trap. I thought, I’m an experimental artist. I should experiment. So I put myself in situations where I didn’t know what to say, what to do, who to be. I did things like work on an Amish farm and at McDonald’s. I just did a bunch of things that were really awkward for me.

Daniel Gilbert: I’m still stuck on the moment you walk into a McDonald’s and go, “Hi, can I get an application?”

Laurie Anderson: It’s easy to work at McDonald’s. I just said I’d done various things in my life. They didn’t ask questions. People don’t really care what you do. In fact, a lot of young artists ask me, “How could I dare call myself an artist? What would people think?” I have to tell you that people care as much about what you do as you care about what they do. Not a lot. It’s not going to rock your world if someone else calls themselves an artist. So knock yourself out! It’s a question of freedom. You prevent yourself from being free by this little defense of, “Gee, what would people say?”

Is art surprise? In certain ways, for me, it is. I like art that turns something upside down. I spent a lot of my childhood in my fort in the woods, smoking oak-leaf cigarettes and thinking of scenarios that had never happened. Just weird little stories like a goose has a heart attack and falls on a man’s head. That has never happened in the history of the world, and for some reason it’s satisfying to think of something that has never been. That’s a childish example but there’s something about the surprise of making something. It’s godlike.

Daniel Gilbert: Building reality—that’s what artists do. But that’s also what everybody does. Every time we think about our own future, we’re using imagination to create scenarios: If I marry Amanda or study the violin or move to New York, here’s what will happen, here’s how I’ll feel... This is really the thing that sets us apart from every other species on this planet. “Be here now” is easy for a mouse.



See this complete article inside the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

About a Poem: Sarah Messer on Nick Flynn's "Hive" (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

About a Poem: Sarah Messer on Nick Flynn's "Hive"

Hive

What would you do inside me?
You would be utterly

lost, labyrinthine

comb, each corridor identical, a
funhouse, there, a bridge, worker

knit to worker, a span
you can’t cross. On the other side

the queen, a fortune of honey.

Once we filled an entire house with it,
built the comb between floorboard

& joist, slowly at first, the constant

buzz kept the owners awake, then
louder, until honey began to seep

from the walls, swell
the doorframes. Our gift.

They had to burn the house down
to rid us.

Nick Flynn is the author of a play, three memoirs, and three books of poetry, the second of which, Blind Huber, explores the life of blind eighteenth-century beekeeper Francois Huber through varying points of view.

In the poem, “Hive,” Flynn writes from the point of view of both the physical structure of the beehive itself (a “labyrinthine comb”) and the collective hive of worker bees acting selflessly as one whole body. I love this poem because in a tiny space, Flynn is able to conjure not only the life of bees but also devotion, desire, and the sublime. 

The first line asks, “What would you do inside me?” and then immediately comes the answer: “You would be utterly lost.” And so from the beginning we understand that this is the hive saying, Reader, I will overwhelm you with my splendor. The poem is perhaps a warning to an ardent lover. Be careful, you will lose yourself.  

What would the lover do inside their beloved—either the actual person they are in love with or, in a larger sense, the divine? Of the two, I prefer to think of the hive as a metaphor for the divine. We all want to live inside it. But what would happen if we got what we wished for? The divine, by definition, is beyond our comprehension.

The metaphor at the end of the poem echoes the feeling of being consumed by spiritual longing. It fills the very walls of our house, our cells, our arms and legs, our walls and roof. And then there is no way out. It is a gift, but one that comes with a radical change. “They had to burn the house down to rid us.” In this kind of devotion, there will be nothing left of your old life.




From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

Books in Brief (July 2014) Print

Shambhala Sun | July 2014

Books in Brief


ANDREA MILLER's roundup this issue features books on yoga, parenting, and our connections to animals, plus the new novel by Silver Linings Playbook author Matthew Quick


THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW
By Matthew Quick
Harper 2014; 304 pp., $25.99 (cloth)

In her final days, Bartholomew’s mother believes (or pretends to believe) that he’s Richard Gere. And being a mama’s boy wanting to make his mama happy, Bartholomew pretends right back. But the contrast is stark. Unlike the celebrity Buddhist, Bartholomew has never slept with a model (or anyone, for that matter). He isn’t passionate about any cause; he doesn’t even have a job. Then his mother dies, and as Bartholomew is putting aside her lightly used undergarments for the local thrift shop, he finds a form letter from Gere urging the boycott of the 2008 Olympics held in China. In his grief, Bartholomew writes to the movie star, sharing his deepest, saddest secrets and his spot-on observations about faith, power, and propriety. Gere never writes back but letter by letter Bartholomew creates a life for himself and—along the way—has a host of quirky adventures. The Good Luck of Right Now is a charming epistolary novel by Matthew Quick, the author of The Silver Linings Playbook.

 

ZOO BURBIA
Meditations on the Wild Animals Among Us

By Tai Moses
Parallax Press 2014; 272 pp., $14.95 (paper)
 

In becoming a backyard farmer, Tai Moses found herself at odds with nature. Although chickens are supposed to like eating slugs, the three she’d bought preferred corn and yogurt, so slugs were free to voraciously chew her garden. Weeds, deer, caterpillars, and raccoons were likewise a constant threat. One day, spying a deer nibbling her irises, Moses realized that they were not actually hers. Wild animals had always lived on this land, but now they were hemmed in by streets. While she had other means of getting food, they did not. Moses gave away her chickens, pulled up her vegetables, and set about turning her yard into an informal animal sanctuary. As she explains it, the world is rife with problems that we cannot solve, but we can all plant our backyards, balconies, and community gardens with native plants, which can in turn support native insects, birds, and animals. And while these plots of land may be small, they add up to something big. Zoo Burbia—a book woven through with Buddhist teachings—is a heartfelt collection of first-person essays about the relationships between humans and animals.

 

BRAVE PARENTING
A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children

By Krissy Pozatek
Wisdom Publications 2014; 200 pp., $17.95 (paper)
 


MISADVENTURES OF A PARENTING YOGI

Cloth Diapers, Cosleeping, and My (Sometimes Successful) Quest for Conscious Parenting

By Brian Leaf
New World Library 2014; 240 pp., $14.95 (paper)
 

Shantideva, an eighth-century Buddhist sage, once remarked that in order to protect our feet from injury, we can either try covering the whole Earth with leather or we can simply put on shoes. According to the licensed clinical social worker Krissy Pozatek, the most prevalent parenting style today is analogous to option one. With all of the best intentions, many modern parents attempt to shield their children from any and all difficulties. Unfortunately, cushioned from discomfort, these children do not acquire the life skills they need to be self-confident, adaptable, resourceful, or emotionally resilient. Brave Parenting is about how to give kids a pair of proverbial shoes. The first step, Pozatek counsels, is to teach children how to experience difficult emotions, such as sadness, anger, and failure, without reactivity. And to teach that lesson, she says, we first need to learn it for ourselves.

The memoir Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi takes us into the home of Brian Leaf, a father of two who is attempting to integrate parenthood with his spiritual life. He concludes that, though little kids look awfully cute doing cobra pose, they don’t need yoga, as they are already relaxed and present. Yoga, however, does help him open his mind and see his kids as they are, rather than how he’d like them to be. While Leaf is a dad of the ultra “granola” and loving variety, he has a sense of humor about it. Paying $400 for used cloth diapers, planting the placenta under an oak tree, and wrestling babies into car seats are all opportunities for him to poke gentle fun.

 

LIVING WITH A WILD GOD
A Nonbeliever’s Search for the Truth About Everything

By Barbara Ehrenreich
Grand Central Publishing 2014; 242 pp., $26 (cloth)
 

Growing up in a staunchly atheist family, Barbara Ehrenreich became a non-believer, a rationalist, the sort of person who always asked “why.” Nonetheless, as a teenager she had a series of what might be called “mystical experiences,” which she had no framework for understanding. Ehrenreich clearly remembers the first one. She was at a horse show with her family and, feeling bored, she wandered off. Then, without warning, she found herself under the pale late summer sun, staring at a tree, but with all meaning, inference, association, labels, and words erased. The word “tree” was gone, she says, “along with all the notions of tree-ness that had accumulated in the last dozen or so years since I had acquired language.” Yet, she continues, “even with all human attributions—the words, the names of species, the wisps of remembered tree-related poetry, the fables of photosynthesis and capillary action… there was still something left.” Now some fifty years later, Ehrenreich explores her “dissociative” episodes through the lenses of science and psychology, philosophy and religion. And she does so with an exquisite use of language.

 

RENGETSU
Life and Poetry of Lotus Moon

Translation and biography by John Stevens
Echo Point Books & Media 2014; 182 pp., $14.99 (paper)

Rengetsu is widely considered to be one of Japan’s most remarkable female poets. Sadly, her life was marked by tragedy. She was born in 1791, the love child of a courtesan and a samurai, and was given up for adoption. Her first marriage was to a womanizer and drunk, while her second marriage—a happy one—ended with her husband’s untimely death. By the time she was forty-two, all of her children, plus her adoptive mother, father, and siblings, were all dead. Rengetsu ordained in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, but in Japan there were virtually no nunneries so she was forced to fend for herself. While she was an accomplished Go player and martial artist, being a woman without means, it wasn’t possible for her make a living using these skills. She settled on making and selling pottery, which she incised with original poems, and her work proved to be both compelling and distinctly her own. This new volume presents a moving sampling of Rengetsu’s poetry and art. “Listen closely,” she wrote. “At this mountain temple, / The sound of the wind in the pines / And the whistle of a kettle / Are the voice of Buddha.”

 

ZEN AND THE SPIRITUAL EXERCISES
By Ruben L.F. Habito
Orbis Books 2013; 237 pp., $25 (paper)

Íñigo Lopez de Loyola was the sort of man who swaggered around in tight hose and boots with a dagger at his waist. He got into duels and flirted with court ladies. Then, at age thirty, he was badly wounded during a battle and suddenly understood the pointlessness of his old pursuits and thereby dedicated himself to God. Íñigo Lopez de Loyola became St. Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, commonly known as the Jesuits. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius is a systematic program of contemplative practice, that is at the heart of Ignatian spirituality, but these exercises can also be embraced by people from other spiritual paths. As a former Jesuit priest who is authorized as a Zen teacher in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition, Ruben L.F. Habito is uniquely qualified to unpack the Spiritual Exercises from a Zen perspective.




From the July 2014 Shambhala Sun magazine. To see what else is in this issue, click here.

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