With a mug of tea, in the early afternoon sunshine, in the garden, with a book. A gift sent from America. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson. Without the benefit of glasses, I glanced at the Introduction and read on.
Today, in the sunshine, reading, my perspective turned around. It was a perfect example of spiritual renewal. From feeling and being grumpy to getting up after perhaps half an hour, uplifted.
Sometimes circumstances conspire to bring about a change of heart, this was so for the author. Yes, the book, the content, the story could not do otherwise. For anyone with a heart. That’s everybody.
Thank you to the woman who gifted me the book. I’ll be reading it to the end. But maybe not in sunshine. We are expecting winter rains and wind. You helped me.
Here below is an extract from an email, published with the recipient’s consent, in which I talk about what I see as the contribution the artist gives into society. Not so easy to put into words, which is precisely the point. Thank you for your thoughts and reasonings. I can sense there is a lot of ideas, feelings, history, (personal and political and geographical) going around for you. You are an artist, I feel that this kind of mix is almost impossible to express in any other way than through bringing out what is inside (within one’s heart) and onto paper – or whatever ones medium happens to be. Poetry does wonders too. Reaching past and through the ‘ordinary mind’ to touch and illicit an unthought out response must surely be yours to engage with, as the artist with the heart and sensibilities of an artist. Seems you don’t actually have a real choice in the matter, any more than I had a choice to be a monk. It’s a vocation, right?
The fact that you are sitting intensively will help you along, bring what is inside you to the fore. And in the midst of that is your living your life, it just happens to be ‘international’. The fact that you can make a living while you are on your feet and moving is just amazing. I’m applauding.
People would often say to me about ‘settling down’. I never have settled down and probably never will. I don’t actually know what that means in practice but I suspect its about staying in one place physically with a steady job and a steady relationship. Society needs us to be steady or is it commerce needs us to be that way, so we can be reliable and consistent consumers. Please don’t do that!
I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.
Just a couple of hours in early September, ambling along the sandy beach at Alnmouth Bay, smelling the seaweed, watching dogs run and play, hearing the swish/woosh of the waves, sitting on a rock as the tide went out – all enough to lift my spirits. It is unmistakable the effect being beside the sea has on one’s whole being.
I wasn’t looking for anything, in particular, that day. It just seemed ‘good’ to stir myself and ‘go somewhere’ while I was having some quiet time/renewal time in August/Sept. My natural inclination was towards exploring the fields and lanes locally to where I was staying. On the day I wasn’t feeling 100% wonderful as I stepped out of the car, there are days like that. During the hours drive the exhaust pipe had broken and the sound of it vibrating against the chassis was both defining and concerning. This I could have done without.
However, it just takes a bit of ‘pushing through’ sometimes, in some circumstances, to let go mentally, emotionally and physically. This is spiritual renewal. There will always be ‘conditions’, inward and outward to push through. Not to reach somewhere else, some happier ‘place’ perhaps but when all conditions come together, there you are. Renewed! what a gift.
I have been re-reading a journal article, titled Renewal which I wrote in the mid-1980s. I was young monastically speaking, training at Shasta Abbey working in The Journal Department; typing it (on an actual typewriter), doing the ‘layout’, taking photographs, collating, and mailing. On revisiting this fairly lengthy article it’s clear that change has happened between then and now! The style? I blush! The theistic language? Clearly ‘a monk’ teaching ‘lay people’ with a slightly preachy feel…! Tripple blush!
That was largely the style then, the look and feel of the Journal then is not the same as now. How we pass on teaching and practice has changed, the fundamental heart, however, remains very much the same. The Journal was and is the ‘voice’ of the teaching, originally a Shasta Abbey Journal and a Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey Journal and latterly since the 1990’s they were combined to be The Journal of the OBC. Goodness! Now it is published online with only limited paper copies. A big change, driven largely by economics. And bless desktop publishing.
Jademountains has broken the mould in terms of what and how teaching and insights are conveyed into the world. As you know posts are not necessarily aimed at people who practice within our tradition either or any kind of religious tradition. In addition, I am free to develop content without formal oversight which is a huge responsibility, although what I write is very much ‘within’ the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives tradition. You all, readers both lay and monastic function as informal checks and balances sitting in the background as I contemplate content. I’m shockingly free to exercise choice and to develop a ‘voice’ and to broadcast into the big wide world.
And now to my motivation behind writing about renewal. The historic article, ‘Renewal’ has become a bit of a classic apparently and now the Journal wants it to be edited to bring it up to date for the Journal to publish. The following series of posts might form the basis of a new article or I may ask for somebody to knock the original into the 21st century!
Renewal? Spiritual renewal, a time set aside from the daily/weekly round to ‘be with’ that which, what might be described as ones deepest most profound aspiration, which can frequently be lost sight of in the face of the imperative to get on with life. It is the time set aside which can be a trial – it means making a deliberate decision to set spiritual renewal as enough of a priority to follow through in practice. That’s to let drop some plans, hopes and dreams and to basically exercise the NO (sorry) faculty we all have but infrequently invoke.
Religious traditions have the Sabbath, defined as: A day of rest and worship: Sunday for most Christians; Saturday for Jews and a few Christians; Friday for Muslims. Apparently there are Uposatha days in Buddhist countries practiced for “the cleansing of the defiled mind,” resulting in inner calm and joy. The closest to that we get is the Renewal of The Precepts twice a month, generally on the fist and third Wednesday. So spiritual renewal is on the organized religions map and in societies calendar. However, they are scheduled for the faithful as against the faithful scheduling holy days for themselves. The latter being more realistic given the over-committed lives most face. Our freedoms to choose how and when we take time to focus in on our overtly religious lives is there. But do we choose, can we choose, what to choose to do or not do?
In the Zen tradition, that we hale from, days with a 4 or a 9 in the date are renewal days, that’s how it was when I was a youngster. We switch to Thursday afternoons and Mondays for renewal to accommodate scheduled weekend retreats for lay guests. On festival days Sunday afternoon is a renewal time too. In principle at least these are times when the monastery has a ‘change of pace’, individuals can exercise choice, deciding how best to spend time to fulfil the spirit of such days. What this looks like in practice changes with seniority, responsibilities, age etc. And it isn’t so much what one does than the attitude adopted.
More tomorrow, or the next day. I cook on Saturdays.
After my ‘change of pace’ this past month it has been a bit of a task to ‘get up to speed’ in terms of writing here. Sisyphus and his rock come to mind. Not that writing here is Sisyphean, that’s a task that is both laborious and futile. Very far from it.
It’s my daily intention to write here but while on ‘quiet time’ I purposefully let that intention fade into the background and turn my attention more inward. Once any kind of intention drops away it takes a deliberate effort to get back at it. For example, the intention to sit formal meditation every day can be hijacked; a day or two might pass and not sit because of other pressures on precious time. It might then take months of absence before girding oneself to sit again. Many people ask about this, ‘how can I establish a regular formal meditation practice’?
It’s too easy to say, ‘just do it’ but there are probably reasons why one’s good intentions fade,; priorities change, circumstances change. In my case, as time goes by I start to wonder if I’ve anything real to write about, or is it time I gave it a rest? Are there more important things I could be doing with my time? Excuses? Possibly.
In the end, and that’s what I’ve done, one basically just has to put one’s shoulder to the rock even if convinced writing is laborious and futile – Sisyphean! Similarly, perhaps the intention to walk regularly or to take some time to relax is eclipsed by more pressing matters? Walking, relaxing? Futile, laborious?!! Over the next few days, I’ll ponder on transforming one’s intentions into actual practice. Especially around the area of purposefully relaxing, resting, renewing. Having a ‘change of pace.’ I’ve certainly benefited from that.
Sisyphus was doomed to a life of pushing a heavy rock up a hill, then having reached the top of the hill the rock rolls back down again. Constantly. Are we too ultimately doomed to such meaningless toil? Or on the other hand, doomed to endlessly attempting to reach that ever-receding goal; out there ahead of ourselves and our lives? In search of an ideal life or at least better than ‘this’.
I’ll not be writing on the level of; get fit fast, find enlightenment pronto, or even be a nicer happier person. I feel intention/wish lies at the heart of our waking moments as humans, so this will be about deciding to do something then doing it. We would call that ‘grasping the will’, I’d say it’s about making choices and then following through.
Albert Camus, in his 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus, saw Sisyphus as personifying the absurdity of human life, but Camus concludes “one must imagine Sisyphus happy” as “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a persons heart.”
Replacing that last sentence to read, ‘Living life itself is enough to fill a person’s heart’, causes Sisyphus, and us, to be happy/content simply to live life.