Today At Meetingbrook

Thursday, January 03, 2002

Before going away a few days to visit friends and family, a meditation on what we are learning with Meetingbrook Conversations.

Seeing and saying and service are the very ground of learning.

I've been thinking of the Maine State Prison and the Meetingbrook Conversations held there. Something simple and lovely is taking place. Observations and insights from the community outside the walls, and from the community inside the walls -- are being shared and thought about, and if found useful, incorporated into each persons understanding of who they are -- inside and outside. Topics in philosophy, poetry, the practice of seeing and saying -- are talked about in round-table conversation. Inmates and volunteers from Meetingbrook Bookshop meet together twice a month for two hours a meeting. So far we've conversed about poetry or pieces from Rumi, Thomas Berry, Hafiz, Mary Oliver, John Logan, Andre, Brendan, Kevin, Boyd, Kenny, Stephen, Russell, Robin, Mike, Sonny, Denis, Robert, Paco, Chris, David Whyte, Richard Hugo, Robert Lowell, Eckhart Tolle, John Riker, as well as Seth, Cheryl, David, Dick, Gale, Saskia and I.

For once, for a brief space, we walk among you
for a space of words,
we quicken your hearts in pursuit of the sovereign will. O makers and unmakers! I shall shortly be borne
in a flowering cart of sandal, into a high heaven; a quaint apotheosis!
The routine slaveries once more possess you.
Man and god, Buddha and Merton, those years, this hour, fold in like a dough.
The blows of the kneading fist withdraw, the times are your own.

(--Daniel Berrigan, from his poem "The Funeral Oration as Pronounced by The Compassionate Buddha" from series In Memoriam; Thomas Merton.in New & Selected Poems)

Thinking is seeing. Poetry is saying. Service is sharing what-is-found.
If thinking is what wakes us, then poetry enlivens us more than we think, but the service of sharing with each other what is found in the encounter -- that is the real practice. These three aspects of being-in-the-world are the foundation of contemplation, conversation, and correspondence.

They are a monastic practice. By monastic practice I mean what we are and what we do when we are alone -- alone by ourselves, alone with others -- or, alone with the Alone. Being alone is not always easily understood. For me it means no matter where we are, no matter who is with us (one other or a number of others), we are engaged in the practice of remaining true and faithful to who we are -- we maintain our grounded individual being -- even while we engage and collaborate with others in the Being and existence we share with them. The Alone (with a capital "A") is the Source of our Being, or Higher Power, or Ultimate Reality, or God, or What-Is. Whatever name we give it, we are referring to that foundational root No-Other that upholds us, informs us, inspires us, creates us, sustains and draws us into our own deepest understanding of what we are, where we are, and why we are in the world. By any other name, this is philosophy, poetry, and practice.

While Breathing

Sometimes I breathe harder and all of a sudden with the aid of my continual absent-mindedness, the world rises with my chest. Perhaps not Africa, but big stuff.
The sound of a brass viol, the noise of an entire orchestra, the noisy jazz beside me, sink into a silence ever more profound, profound, smothered.
Their light scratching collaborates (in a way that a millionth of a millimeter collaborates to make a meter) with these waves all around which give birth to themselves, splay themselves, which make the buttress and the soul of everything.

(Prose Poem by Henri Michaux, translated from French by Richard Ellmann, in The Prose Poem)

This is the year of poetry, the time is right. I understand poetry in this context as -- what is being written, what is being spoken. "Poetry and Autobiography," the course Harold & I did at Maine State Prison as an independent study has been a wonderful experience following the promptings of personal recollection along with the promptings of poetry. If anyone else wishes to explore these promptings, it would be a good exercise, a good practice.
I'm planning to offer as a course suggestion to the University of Maine System. "Philosophy, Poetry, and Practice: A Study of Seeing, Saying, and Service of the Ordinary and Extraordinary in Life." As a working draft for a course title it is a bit elongated. Perhaps, "Philosophy of Poetry in Practice."

By means of the three "P's" we'd read, write, and reflect the three S's." It would be an interdisciplinary aesthetic inquiry into the inter-relationship of thought, expression, and engagement-with-others. We'd interweave philosophy, poetry, and spiritual thinking as collaborative corollaries to situations in the world, personal experiential autobiography, and the creativity of meaningful contribution to both the arts and to one's everyday interactions with the world.

"Look, Paddy, nothing could ever make me believe
in that heaven of yours."
"Of God's, more strictly speaking...
and all the luckier for you. Think of your surprise
when you'll be waking up and saying, 'I still don't believe
in all this heaven stuff!' and God just grinning,
'Nor do you have to, man. Not if not believing
makes you any happier. We aim to please.' "

(--from Ramon Guthrie's poem, "There Are Those.")

The joy of philosophy, poetry, and practice is that whatever is seen, said, or served by the conversation is meant to be taken back by any of the participants to their own root tradition, spirituality, everyday reality, philosophy, or personal experience. Everything about the conversations is gift, namely, anything given into the center of the circle is just given. Anything taken is just taken. No other agenda, no other intention. Many are wary about motivations. At Meetingbrook Conversation the only motivation is the conversation. That anyone puts in something they think others should hear, well, there's no stopping that. Any attempt to push the issue to the right or the left, to one corner or the other, is soon counterbalanced by comments that move the topic back to the center. Preaching, proselytizing, or trying to convince are accepted for their duration because the openness of the circle equally invites the opposite opinion, the countervailing comment that expresses whatever is in the mind of the person not to be preached at, not to be converted to, not to be convinced. All is welcome, and therefore, all is considered in its own light.

Existence itself is poetical. The poetry is merely an expression of such existence. Chinese poets penetrate into the source of things and reveal their true nature. As Archibald MacLeish would say, "A poem should not mean, but be!" The best works of Chinese poetry do not "mean"; they "are." The spiritual rhythm emerges from the objective reality, which appears no more a mere visual description.

When the poet is free from artificiality he will not only reflect pure objective reality, he will also be able to reflect spontaneously his inner joy without distortion and limitations from the ego-consciousness. He is purposeless and fearless as the flowing stream and the shining moon. Since the poet is serene he simply reflects what happens to his mind.

(pp.176-7, Creativity and Taoism, A Study of Chinese Philosophy, Art, and Poetry, by Chang Chung-yuan)

The prison conversations, like the conversations held at the bookshop in Camden, are free, open, and informal. Free doesn't just mean there's no monetary cost to attend. It also means, as with all freedom, there's no telling where it will go and who will point it in that direction. This invited spontaneity serves to open the possibilities, and inform the individual and group that it is safe and sound to attend. Respect, rather than being a set of rules, follows when you know you are free to admit what you see and say into the service of the conversation.

Someone asked the master, Bokuju:
we have to dress and eat every day --
how do we get out of all that?

Bokuju answered:
We dress, we eat.

The questioner said:
I don't understand.

Bokuju answered:
If you don't understand,

put on your clothes and eat your food.

(in The Grass Grows By Itself, by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh)

In other words, practice. As a contemporary saying puts it, "The only way out is through." Whatever we do is what we do; it is the mind that makes it burden or delight. Each thing done for itself needs nothing added to it. If the feeling or thought of "delight" or "burden" comes, then we just watch it come and watch it go. Practice is doing each thing for itself. So too, with things we've done in life, things we regret or things we'd like to repeat and repeat. Regret and longing to repeat are journeys to the past and the future -- which can only be done in the mind. The body is here and now. Awareness is here and now. To practice what is here and now is to free oneself from regret and longing for something else. Despite the attraction for what is not here and now, it is often a painful experience to realize that what is not here or not now is not real. What is real is here. What is real is now. By entering and engaging what is, here and now, is to live fully the life that is ours to live.

Perhaps there is a spirit of the place we occupy, and there are spirits of places we are not. (Poets can speak of these things; they have a poetic license.) When here and now, we occupy the spirit of the place we are, and are content to be what and who, and where we are -- no matter how objectively undesirable that place might seem to others. When not here, not now, spirits of the places we've wandered to in our minds occupy us, and we are at the whim of their memories and projections, no longer ourselves, and not moving through our own life, but through someone else's. Does poetry help us understand this dilemma? Czeslaw Milosz writes:

Ars Poetica?

I have always aspired to a more spacious form
that would be free from the claims of poetry or prose
and would let us understand each other without exposing
the author or reader to sublime agonies.

In the very essence of poetry there is something indecent:
a thing is brought forth which we didn't know we had in us,
so we blink our eyes, as if a tiger had sprung out
and stood in the light, lashing his tail.

That is why poetry is rightly said to be dictated by a daimonion,
though it’s an exaggeration to maintain that he must be an angel.
It's hard to guess where that pride of poet's comes from,
when so often they're put to shame by the disclosure of their frailty.

What reasonable man would like to be a city of demons,
who behave as if they were at home, speak in many tongues,
and who, not satisfied with stealing his lips or hand,
work at changing his destiny for their convenience?

It's true that what is morbid is highly valued today,
and so you may think that I am only joking
or that I've devised just one more means
of praising Art with the help of irony.

There was a time when only wise books were read
helping us to bear our pain and misery.
This, after all, is not quite the same
as leafing through a thousand works fresh from psychiatric clinics.

And yet the world is different from what it seems to be
and we are other than how we see ourselves in our ravings.
People therefore preserve silent integrity
thus earning the respect of their relatives and neighbors.

The purpose of poetry is to remind us
how difficult it is to remain just one person,
for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors,
and invisible guests come in and out at will.

What I'm saying here is not, I agree, poetry,
as poems should be written rarely and reluctantly,
under unbearable duress and only with the hope
that good spirits, not evil ones, choose us for their instrument.

(--by Czeslaw Milosz, trans. from Polish by CM and Lillian Vallee, in The Poet's Work, 29 Masters of 20th Century Poetry On The Origins and Practice Of Their Art)

In the same book as Milosz's poem is an interview with poet and Zen ecologist Gary Snyder. He has just been quoted as saying that,
Poetry effects change by fiddling with the archetypes and getting at people's dreams about a century before it actually effects historical change."
INTERVIEWER: I'm not too clear on the idea of the archetype blocks.
SNYDER: What I'm saying is we change the values of a society.
INTERVIEWER: Then the poet is essentially a pioneer?
SNYDER: No I wouldn't say a pioneer. A pioneer clear-cuts an eco-system and sets the succession phase back to zero again. A poet would be, in terms of the ecology of symbols, noting the main structural connections and seeing which parts of the symbol system are no longer useful or applicable, though everyone is giving them credence. And out of his own vision and hearing of voices he seeks for new paths for the mind energy to flow, which would be literally more creative directions, but directions which change politics. Poets are more like mushrooms or fungi -- they can digest the symbol detritus...
The value and function of poetry can be said in a very few words. One side of it is in time, the other is out of time. The in-time side of it is to tune us in to mother nature and human nature so that we can live in time, in our societies in a way and on a path in which all things can come to fruition equally, and together in harmony. A path of beauty. And the out-of-time function of poetry is to return us to our own true original nature at this instant forever. And those two things happen, sometimes together, sometimes not, here and there all over the world, and always have.
(p.292, Gary Snyder, "The Real Work" -- Excerpts from an Interview.)

We are fortunate to be able to learn -- to listen to, speak with, and practice alongside so many wonderful learning individuals. This is the real work of Meetingbrook Conversations -- to see what is taking place with attentive presence; to listen to the sound of what is being said; to practice what is now taking place.

Tuesday, January 01, 2002


We walk the snowy surface of playing field and frozen Hosmer Pond as midnight nears. Returning to hermitage, lighting incense and two candles, bowing to cushion, sitting. Brass bowl sounds itself 12 times as both candles dim and extinguish themselves. In the dark and silence we sit. Whatever juncture is crossed is done without sound, without illumination. Only woman, man, dog, & cat -- each settled and still in the crossing.

May blessing and peace dwell herein at hermitage in Maine -- and at any other quiet place of heart or mind -- wherever we dwell in the wide world this New Year 2002!

A meditation this day: Mothering God – O Marvelous Exchange!

What would it be like to experience the expression of creation from God’s perspective? Is every appearance of life a maieutic event, a midwifing birth from no-it-isn’t to yes-it-is? Is God the mothering Being-unto-Birth attending tirelessly every insight, every howling infant, and every death-rattling final gasp that brings one more being through the door of finitude?

When Jesus was told that his mother was waiting for him he asked who was his mother, really, who was his mother but anyone who heard and obeyed the promptings of the source of all Being, the Father. Contrary to the sketches of hurt usually ascribed to Mary upon hearing this relativizing rendering of her place in his life, I suspect she was delighted. If Mary is the woman so long touted as extraordinary in nearness to the unfolding of Christ, then she knew hearing Jesus’ words that he knew what she knew what we all will know when our time comes.

“O marvelous exchange!” proclaims antiphon 1 at 1st Vespers for January 1, the celebration of Mary, Mother of God, and the Octave of Christmas. “Man’s Creator has become man, born of a virgin. We have been made sharers of the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.”

Don’t we all become what we create? In the Creator’s case, the Creator becomes the creation. What do we become? What are we creating?

As a new year begins at Meetingbrook we are creating space for meditation and contemplation, conversation, collation and recollection, correspondence, and simple engaged service. We are doing nothing special, really, nothing other than what anybody does who suspects or realizes that we have been made sharers of the divinity of Christ. And what is that? The divinity of Christ might be seen as the unbroken awareness that we are what God is doing – the unceasing revelation of God’s life and breath in this existence. Jesus knew it, Mary knew it – now, we are practicing what they knew and taught.

We practice the awareness graciously given us by these two wonderful beings. Presaged and predated by other marvelous and compassionate beings in Israel, India, Persia, and what would come to be called the Americas – this anawim (poor and lowly) woman and anointed son forged a new exchange – a new circle wherein what we will be and what we are is just ahead of what we’ve been. The straight road has turned around into itself and become a circular spiral where we no longer are straying from what and where we are – but are extending this being and place called who-we-are into a profound and deepening awareness of our shared origin. Point of departure and focus of destination have grasped each other’s hand and now twirl in ecstatic embracing dance at origin – a grounded, real, encircling earthly/heavenly origin.

That’s what a hermitage is and does. It creates a place of practice and then practices so as to be a place of practice. And so this New Year – we practice. Alone, together, with those we know, and with those we will come to know. This practice, this dance, this prayer -- this exchange of mothering creation with mothering creator – is the exchange taking place in solitude and community. As long as we can, we practice the presence of this exchange, one breath at a time.
………
We’ll be visiting a new prison when we continue conversations at Maine State Prison in February. Meanwhile, the windows for the Meditation Cabin are all nearly in, with door, flooring, and woodstove at ready to complete the creation. We want to buy the adjoining 2.8 acres this year and trust the money will appear. The Hermitage Harbor Room is ready to receive those wishing a retreat by the ocean. Call to reserve for a creative rest and retreat. It is available for all four seasons.
……….
As we face backward and forward this January, lets surround and mother each other with creation. Let’s pray for each other. Let’s practice with each other. Let’s exchange our life in the creation of freedom, peace, and love – the life of mothering God with us.

With gratitude -- May all experience joy this January, this New Year!

Monday, December 31, 2001

Let's end the year and begin the year with silence.

Wait! Before that, let's speak, even name what can be named, what can be understood, in words or music -- of the transition from this to that, old to new, one thing to another, what remains of the narrow self of our egos to what is immeasurably the selflessness of God. Then, perhaps, neither word nor silence will be necessary. Then, perhaps, both word and silence will comprise the song and music of what the eyes alone in cherishing muted gaze enfold. At Sunday Evening Practice Nancy spoke the word cherish, and we heard her.

Robert Lowell's poem "In the Ward" included the lines:
Music,
its ever retreating borderlines of being,
as treacherous, perhaps, to systems,
to fecundity,
as to silence.


Then, a couplet,
Die Sprache ist unverstanden
doch nicht unverstandlich?

[Language is not understood
but not un-understandable?]

Is there a communication, a cherishing, that occurs when the heart is open and receptive with love to anyone presenting themselves? Is this language of the unheard sphere -- the sphere of apophatic understanding, wordless and inexpressable, -- what we feel when an abiding accepting love permeates who, what, and where we are? (Perhaps our elder Janet captures Lowell's quote best when of a Friday night poetry reading she said, "I don't understand a word you write and say, but I love you!")

Martin Heidegger's words, Die Sprache sprecht! -- Language speaks! -- continue,
Its speaking bids the dif-ference to come which expropriates world and things into the simple onefold of their intimacy.
Language speaks.
Man speaks in that he responds to language. This responding is a hearing. It hears because it listens to the command of stillness.(
in ,Poetry, Language Thought , p.210)

There is an ordinary language of daily intercourse that is heard, and there is a sacred language that stretches beneath it unheard. Both involve a speaking that fills our senses and our soul. As we listen and hear either dimension, so it is we learn to speak in response -- whether in sound or in silence. The whole body listens and the whole body speaks -- sometimes with vibrational word, sometimes with grace of gesture.

Heidegger later says,
It is not a matter here of stating a new view of language. What is important is learning to live in the speaking of language. To do so, we need to examine constantly whether and to what extent we are capable of what genuinely belongs to responding: anticipation in reserve.

Placing Heidegger's words in another configuration: "Anticipation in reserve,...the simple onefold of...intimacy, [is]...what genuinely belongs to responding." Perhaps this nears what Nancy is saying with cherish?

Bankai celebrates this cherishing language:
What does it matter,
The new year, the old year?
I stretch out my legs
And all alone have a
Quiet sleep.
Don’t tell me the monks
Aren’t getting their instruction.
Here and there the nightingale
Is singing;
The highest Zen.

- Bankei (1622-1693)

As does Lowell,
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name.
-- Lowell, "Epilogue" in Day by Day)

Georg Trakl's poem brings this night to transition:

A Winter's Evening

Window with falling snow is arrayed
Long tolls the Vesper bell,
The house is provided well,
The table is for many laid.

Wandering ones, more than a few,
Come to the door on darksome courses.
Golden blooms the tree of graces
Drawing up the earth's cool dew.

Wanderer quietly steps within;
Pain has turned the threshold to stone.
There lie, in limpid brightness shown,
Upon the table bread and wine.


From our hermitage to yours, one year to another -- May each be cherished! May all be cherished! May our language cherish what is each in all, and what is all in each!
For this, and for you, we are grateful.

Happy New Year,
Love,
Bill, Saskia, Sando, Mini & all who grace Meetingbrook

Sunday, December 30, 2001

Family is what we are. When we practice what we are, we are holy; we are a practicing holy family.
Perhaps all revelation is made in small measure in local habitat. What is seen by one is a vision for many. Philosophers furrow brows and debate the one and the many. But for our benefit the one is the many. See one, see many; see one see all.

The Holy Family is what we practice by being what we are. The festival of the Holy Family practiced in the Catholic tradition is small measure and local habitat meant for many -- profoundly immeasurable and worldwide dwelling. Woman, Man, and Child -- the specific building blocks of individual human physical and spiritual community. Writ small -- woman, man, child is what each one of us is -- family unto oneself. Writ larger -- woman, man, child is the core blocks for what is most familiar -- what we've called nuclear family. Writ whole -- woman, man, child is the very embodied collective of our entire world population -- the human family.

When we practice family-unto-oneself we become real and honest. When we practice nuclear-family we become loving and patient. When we practice human-family we become compassionate and accepting.

But if we do not yet understand who we are as family, we pervert honesty, love, and acceptance. We make of those three qualities a lie. A lie is a lesser and perverted truth -- not the simple telling of what is, truth alone. A lie is a torturing of truth until it doesn't look like itself. To understand what family is, is to be oneself -- with particular others, in the embracing inclusion of everyone who now lives, has ever lived, will come to live. Family!

Embedding in stories of a holy man, Susan Trott has him telling of a "game" watching dappled ponies that applies as well to family:
Yes. Along with everything else about it, it seemed to be a parable for life. Going forwards and backwards and round in circles, striving ever forward only to have to run like crazy backwards to get the ball again, realizing that your enemy is after the same goal and you're actually helping him toward it and getting roughed up and possibly killed while you're at it but still feeling the comradeship of being in the game all together. (p.145, The Holy Man)

The straight line of our thinking is now capable of turning around -- rethinking and recollecting -- what has been there from the beginning, but only now able to be seen by more and more of us. The movement of our awareness has seemed through generations and centuries to be evolving toward a new comprehension of family. Robert Creeley's words from his poem "Here" help:

Past time -- those
memories opened
places and minds,
things of such reassurance--

now the twist,
and what was a road
turns to a circle
with nothing behind.

(from Creeley's book of poems Pieces)

And nothing left out. The comprehension of holy family has another dimension to it. Like 4th and 5th dimensional thinking of time and space, string theory posits many more dimensions of reality that we cannot yet seem to calibrate into our experiential understanding. Part of this to-be-grasped sometime is another dimension of family, namely, all matter, all beings, all animals all that has shape, form, and presence (whether visible or invisible) -- all as family. Sacred and real -- what is, has been, will be -- the timeless and spacious celebration of family.

Paul says in Colossians 1:15, Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creatures In him everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominations, principalities or powers; all were created through him, and for him. He is before all else that is. In him everything continues in being.
Is Paul pointing to a dimension of appreciation that we have yet to arrive at experientially? Might this someday be appreciated as referring to each and every being and person that is seen and experienced as family?

For now, this appreciation or realization is for many of us embedded in the daily practice of the appreciation or realization. Some call this meditation practice, some contemplation practice, some call it banging their head against the stonewall of hard, unrelenting experience of its opposite. (The opposite is the hard, unreflective experiences of non-family, fragmented family, broken family.) To practice the appreciation and realization of true family, holy family, and the sacred familiar -- is to enter into true, holy, sacred for that moment, that duration of practice. We practice what we are; we are what we practice.

Thich Nhat Hanh writes in his lovely way about practice:
To me a meditation center is where you get back to yourself, you get a clear understanding of reality, you get more strength in understanding and love, and you prepare for your re-entry into society. If it is not like that, it is not a real meditation center. As we develop real understanding, we can re-enter society and make a real contribution
We have many compartments in our lives. When we practice sitting meditation and when we do not practice sitting, these two periods of time are so different from each other. While sitting, we practice intensively and while we are not sitting we do not practice intensively. In fact, we practice non-practice intensively. There is a wall which separates the two, practicing and non-practicing. Practicing is only for the practice period and non-practicing is only for non-practicing period. How can we mix the two together? How can we bring meditation out of the meditation hall and into the kitchen, and the office? How can the sitting influence the non-sitting time? If a doctor gives you an injection, not only your arm but your whole body benefits from it. If you practice one hour of sitting a day, that hour should be all 24 hours, and not just for that hour. One smile, one breath, should be for the benefit of the whole day, not just for that moment. We must practice in a way that removes the barrier between practice and non-practice.
(from Being Peace, pp52-53)

So too family. We must practice in a way that removes the barrier between family and non-family. What we consider non-family might just be a distorted notion we carry that doesn't look like itself. The mind, if not watched with care, can torture what is true to an unrecognizable distortion. Such uncaring and uncared-for reflections that become distorted often result in much suffering and unhappiness. A practice that removes the barriers -- between family and non-family, true image and distorted images -- most often results in relieving suffering and realizing happiness.

We are family -- and when we practice being family, we realize what we are. When we practice what we are, we are holy. I greet the holiness we are, my family!