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Selflessness

I have sometimes wondered if the soul is unchangeable or if it is something that can learn and grow in the manner of our hearts and minds. In other words, what is the nature of the soul?

I remember a passage from the Buddhist sutras (scriptures) in which a seeker left the Buddha’s presence in tears because he felt, from their conversation, that he had no “atman” (what Hindus thought of as the immutable soul). Afterwards, the Buddha told Ananda, his chief disciple, that it was wrong to teach that Man has a soul, but it was also wrong to teach that he does not. Interesting stuff!

Jesus taught little concerning the nature of the soul, although He had a lot to say about how to secure its salvation.

Full disclosure: I am a relatively recent Catholic convert, but I have learned a lot from other traditions and do not hesitate to find meaning in them when and where I can.

Anyway, I have written a poem that was inspired by much of the above, and I present it here for your consideration:

 

Selflessness

 

An earnest seeker to the Buddha came,

his troubled mind possessed by fears,

then left, his eyes downcast

and full of tears.

 

Ananda, puzzled, of his master asked

what caused the seeker so much pain.

The Buddha answered him,

“I will explain.

 

“He sought to know what Man’s true nature was,

I said, ‘It is an empty bowl,’

for it is wrong to teach

Man has a soul.”

 

The Buddha added, then, contrarily,

regarding what he had just taught,

“It, too, is wrong to teach,

that Man does not.”

 

One wonders, in that weighty paradox,

what lofty truth that Buddha knew

was left for us to learn –

truth comes in twos?

 

Years later, in Jerusalem, a rich

young man unto Lord Jesus came,

but then he left, his face

downcast in shame.

 

St. Peter asked of Jesus, “Tell me, Lord,

why does the rich man turn away?”

Said Jesus, “He cannot

accept the way

 

“that leads a man unto eternal life.

He does all the commandments say;

one thing, alone, he lacks:

to give away

 

“his worldly wealth and Heaven’s treasures win

if, truly, he makes it his goal

to gain the Kingdom and

perfect his soul.”

 

And in that teaching Christ shares with us all

this wisdom, prized at any cost:

one’s life is only found,

when it is lost.

 

Do these two ancient teachings both ring true,

and to our minds are they as leaven

when some, Nirvana seek,

and others, Heaven?

 

Perhaps, salvation and enlightenment,

through death of all self-centeredness,

both issue from the womb

of selflessness.

And as I Sat

As any followers of this blog are already aware, I have not been posting frequently during the past several months due to a serious accident in September and a demanding schedule of physiotherapy – which I am happy to report is going well – and a lot of life details to take care of. I have a ways to go yet, but am sure that I will be fine in the end. In the meantime, I have been writing a lot of poetry – it’s healing. Here is one that I wrote on the subject of the accident and its aftermath. It’s raw but honest. I hope you like it.

And as I Sat

as i sat broken by the unforgiving pavement

bones obscenely rupturing torn skin

one shattered arm i cradled like a newborn babe

hoping help would speedily arrive

i prayed the surgeon’s skill

would banish the raw jagged waking nightmare

back into the shadows whence it came

and as i sat

two men (who’d watched me trace my blunt arc through the air)

came round and

in loud voices

and forced

joviality

gave manly comfort as they could

a boy first on the scene fought down his own anxiety

the piercing sight of spreading red upon my lap too much for him

he was too brave to lie

i calmed him as i could

his courage was a balm to me

a lovely spanish lass with perfect, perky tits

– oh yes, i noticed them (i’m sorry, child) –

gave reassurance with

her big brown

doe-ish

eyes

i flirted

shamelessly

but we both knew

it was all innocent bravado in the face of pain and fear

i only craved the comfort that she freely, as a mother, gave

still I was strangely calm

as if I drifted on a dead calm sea

each bump as I was carted

to the

hospital

each searing jolt of pain

was meaningless – more was at stake

a surgeon’s smile

– oh, how I loved that man! –

the clear plastic mask of sleep descending gently over mouth and nose –

“could this be my final sight?”

awakening in a morphine fog

then months of dreary physiotherapy,

work left undone, all rust and dust,

dreams savagely deferred

and some most cruelly dispatched:

a woman gone,

a priest that never came . . .

the disappointments flooded fast.

to my surprise, I grew!

My arm was shattered, yes,

but still, it may one day be whole again

for I am working hard,

and I’m a stubborn, stubborn man,

though I have many other breaks to heal,

the other jagged pieces of my life

that also rose and then broke over me

like filthy waves upon some urban beach

all strewn with broken needles, once worn condoms, cans and glass . . .

Oh, I will pick them up,

my shattered dreams, that is,

Oh yes, I will;

I do,

and, as I do,

I AM!

Yes, this is me!

For I’ve passed through the furnace of my fears,

and still more harrowing, the clouds of dull despair –

the phoenix laughs at me,

she who truly died,

not merely passed through faux mortality as I,

a mere visitor,

lingering

on the dismal shores of one sad concrete river of awakening.

This one thing I have surely learned:

We live our lives from many layers, onion-like.

Some of our psyche’s several parts play out their roles diurnally,

While others, deeper still, through larger cycles toil and deeper delve,

And one there even is whose long, strong roots plunge down, and further down into eternity.

And in this pilgrimage of mine,

Spent sifting through my mundane fears,

Those roots grow deeper still,

And ever will,

Through all my psyche’s scars,

As they reach bravely even to the stars.

The snow fell a few days ago.

That’s nothing profound, but the flakes were so tiny, and they fell so slowly, yet they accumulated so deeply.

It was, to me, a metaphor: the largest task can be accomplished by a plethora of tiny efforts.

This is a cliche, I know, and I would not think of blogging about something so obvious, but here’s the thing: nature offers us these little insights, cliched though they may be, if we are open to them – usually, we are not.

If we were more in touch with nature, I think that we would find all of the little bits of wisdom that we are already aware of constantly reenforced.

And that’s what I’m blogging about.

:-)

What I Learned

I haven’t written anything here for a while because I have been preoccupied with the aftereffects of my accident. I was in the hospital for three days, then I went to stay with my sister for about a month. I needed help and I got it from medical practitioners, family and friends.

I got my cast off after three weeks and went into physiotherapy. I go three times a week and do exercises at home every day, three to five times. Each session is one to one and a half hours long, so I spend a lot of time at it – it’s like a full time job.

It’s coming slowly, but it’s coming. Time will tell how complete my recovery will be, but regardless of the outcome, I will have a good life because that is what I choose for myself.

I have learned some things from all of this.

First of all, I notice that I have fewer thoughts these days. It puzzled me at first, and to some extent it still does. I think that a life changing accident brings a person down to earth – something that I may have needed though I would have preferred another method of achieving it. Still I am grateful.

I have also learned something interesting from physiotherapy, which is the subject of my blog entry today.

Sometimes the best thing for us is not the most comfortable thing.

My instinct is to protect my arm, to avoid things that cause it any discomfort, for protect it and cradle it, and keep it still because it sustained such a serious injury, and because doing anything else with it hurts, but that would be the worst thing I could do.

Joints that have been in a cast tend to become stiff, very stiff, and your natural range of motion, as they call it, is decreased – which is not something I want for myself, certainly not for the long term, and if I am not very serious about physiotherapy, that is exactly what with happen.

Under the guidance of a skilled physiotherapist, I have to do things to myself that hurt – several hours a day. It goes completely against the grain, but it is absolutely necessary.

I think it’s like that with a lot of things.

Sometimes we have to do things that hurt if we want a better life, not just in physiotherapy, but in so many things. We have to put ourselves out there for the world to see when we feel like hiding away. Sometimes we have to walk away from things we want because they are no good for us. Sometimes we have to do hard things if we are to grow. And sometimes, we have to make painful admissions to ourselves if we wish to transcend our imperfections.

I wouldn’t wish what I have gone through on anyone, including myself, but like so much in life, welcome or not, it is there to be learned from.

And finally, please drive safely. Keep your eyes on the road. Do not use your cell phone in the car. It only takes a second of inattention for an accident to happen, and there are other ways to learn.

Changes

Four weeks ago tomorrow, while on my bike. I hit a pot hole, a deep one. The bike stopped. I did not. Within seconds I knew that I had a compound fracture of the elbow and I would need surgery. The medics had trouble stopping the bleeding. Somehow, I felt calm.

A young man who stayed with me confided that he had anxiety problems. I told him how I got over my own anxiety, and recommended Eli Bay and The Relaxation Response which helped me, years ago.

Later that day, the surgeon told me that it had gone well, but he had needed to spend four hours on me. My humerus was broken into seven pieces (not including fragments), and it had been necessary for him to fracture the ulna to get at it. He put in three stainless steel plates and who knows how many screws plus some kind of artificial lattice work that bone likes to grow over to fill the space left by fragments that were too small to screw to anything. The nerves, thank God, are all intact.

The bones are knitting. The cast came off after three weeks, the screws holding everything together well enough to permit physiotherapy.

I will heal, although I will be prone to some degree of arthritis, and it is uncertain how much range of motion will return. The surgeon says that I might make a full recovery.

To say that it has been a difficult month would be an understatement. It has been a shock to the system, I have been in a lot of pain, and taken a lot of pills.

I have also asked myself a lot of questions.

I was doing a lot of that, even before the accident, having decided that it was time to make a few adjustments to my life as I head into its third act. Not to be melodramatic about it, but I’m not getting any younger, and I want these next few decades to be rewarding.

And so, with all of that on my plate, I ask for your prayers.

I have written many times on this blog about how meaningful life is, how everything is an opportunity for growth, and that ours is a glorious spiritual future. Ultimately, good comes from everything, either intrinsically or because that is what we choose to draw from it.

Here, in verse, is my response to what I have gone through:

 

A marvel ’tis that from co-mingled earth

and spirit comes the miracle of life.

Though met with simple love and joy at birth,

too soon, it wades through swirling want and strife.

 

When all goes well, our swelling hearts give praise

and thanks to Him above who authored us;

if aught goes ill, another thought we raise:

How can it be misfortune courts us thus?

 

Still I, In prayer, ask not for any thing,

no recognition nor relationship:

I only long for that which surely brings

such ease as overcomes the worst hardship:

 

I see that all my soul yet longs to see

is me as God created me to be.

The Beggar

St Ps 5

This is a picture that you may recognize from a blog post I did on St. Paul’s Basilica in Toronto. This statue is located in the basement. Rounding a corner to meet it face to face is startling and remembering it is haunting. It is, of course, based on a passage of scripture in Matthew:

40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

42 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink:

43 I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

44 Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

45 Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

Personally, despite the fact that I am a Catholic convert, I do not believe in a literal Hell: I take the above passage as metaphor, and I know that Jesus, from all the scriptural evidence, loved a good metaphor. Mother Teresa picked up on the above passage, it seems to me, when she said of the poor, the sick and the dying whom she ministered to, “Every day I see Jesus Christ in all his distressing disguises.”

Over the last few months, I found that the picture of this statue returned to me again and again, as if I was supposed to do something, and then I got the idea for this poem:

The Beggar

I smelled him ere I saw him sitting,

piss and vomit stained;

unfed for days, unwashed for weeks,

his face was drawn with pain.

I purposely avoided him;

the movement caught his eye.

He laughed asthmatically. “You need

not kiss me; you won’t die.”

Just see me, please, so spoke the eyes

beneath his filthy hair,

worn like an execution hood –

they caught me unaware.

His cracked lips caterpillared

from one cheek o’er to its twin.

Against my every prejudice,

his presence drew me in.

And something scuttled in his lap,

crab-like, as on the strand,

a withered hand that might have shook,

but ne’er another’s hand,

a thumb in rictus, fingers gnarled,

all quivering and splayed,

and then across some inner screen

this misty vision played:

A ragged hole all purpled round

was centered in his palm,

a bruise that oozed, unhealing wound,

a hand fit to embalm.

 

His other hand (another wound,

too, oozing) joined its brother

to form a fetid begging bowl

that stirred the hearts of others.

I blinked, the piercings both were gone.

“Well? Watcha starin’ for?”

His puzzled stare reflected mine –

the vision was no more.

And as I struggled with myself

Some sense in it to find,

inquisiting relentlessly,

these words played in my mind:

“I thirsted and ye gave me drink;

I hungered, ye gave bread;

ye rescued me when robbers

left me on the road for dead.

“When I was sick, ye soothed my brow;

my naked body clothed;

was homeless, and ye took me in;

ye loved the one they loathed.”

And I stretched out my hand to you . . . ?

These words came not with those,

but from that beggar’s rheumy eyes,

as through rank weeds, a rose.

For as I wondered what they meant,

I heard my Christian name

being spoken in a whisper as

another vision came:

a crucifix stood in one pan,

my deeds sat its twin,

as if to set the wages paid

for virtue and for sin.

 

The pans hung from a balance beam,

and it began to sway,

my eyes glued to the pivot point

so I could see which way.

 

But though it swayed, it somehow stayed,

both pans in place restrained

from movement either up or down:

in balance they remained.

And coming to my senses, then,

it seemed to me I might,

in my next act, be choosing:

walk in darkness or in light?

These whispered words of Jesus Christ

Made clear for me to see:

“The deed which you do now for him,

you do also for Me.”

And so, I gave him all I had,

for pride is overpriced.

It was no beggar stared at me;

indeed, I’d witnessed Christ.

And on that day, my life was changed:

As yeast to bread is leaven,

a beggar’s words and eyes and hands,

showed me the way to heaven.

greenhouse

 

Last Fall, I started collecting windows.

I noticed that one of my neighbors was taking out her original windows (maybe from the 1950s) to put in modern ones, and I thought, “Greenhouse!” I asked her if I could have the old ones, and she said yes. I leaned it up against the side of my house, and kept my eyes open for more.

A few months later, another person on my street decided to do the same thing, so he gave me his windows, too. More windows were leaned against the side of my house.

Eventually, I acquired the windows from four houses, along with two storm doors.

Meanwhile, one of my next door neighbors – a real grouch – called the city to complain. I convinced them that they did not constitute not renovation waste (the storage of which is against a city bylaw) but building materials – truth! – so they gave me until sometime in September to build.

So many rules!

Then, the question naturally arose: how do I build a greenhouse out of thirty or forty old windows? The internet was no help. There are no books on the subject, and then I remembered . . .

My brother-in-law is a retired contractor, and he was kind enough to draw me up some plans. As you can see from the picture, I am about halfway done. Thanks to him and four homeowners, I will be able to grow some veggies all winter, get a two month start on the growing season for the more delicate varieties, and bring down my food bill substantially, which is a great thing when you’re a recent retiree. As Ron Finley, the urban gardener says, “Growing your own food is like printing your own money.”

But none of the above, although important, is the main reason behind this post.

Bear with me.

Recently, it got back to me that someone I know said of my proposed venture, “He’ll never be able to build it.”

I’m not offended; in fact, I’m most grateful because he made me realize something very important.

Bear with me.

The truth is I had doubts myself. I had never built anything even remotely comparable. I was useless with a hand saw, and power tools scared me. I was awful in Shop class back in junior high school: my salad bowl project turned into a picture frame when I cut too deep on the wood lathe. How was I supposed to build a greenhouse?

But I had a plan in my hand and a backyard full of materials . . .

The foundation was made out of “sleepers”: 6” x 6” pressured treated wood. The 8 foot lengths that formed the ends were pretty heavy, but 12 foot lengths that formed the sides were pretty much as heavy as I could manage, and I’m not a small guy. I had to dig shallow trenches and line them up, get them perfectly level, then join them with screws and metal plates. I looked at them and thought, “Can I do this?”

To shorten a long, ongoing story, I asked myself that question before every stage of construction, each of which seemed to require a new skill which I did not possess: Can I actually get this foundation right? Can I really frame the walls? Can I properly place the glass? I’m partway through that process now. And how about that roof . . . ?

Now, here is where I’m going to go a little airy-fairy on you, but it is the main point of this blog entry.

I was not only asking myself questions; I was sending them out to the universe. They all boiled down to: Can I do this? And since I was asking that question so frequently, this is what I was saying and projecting: “I CAN’T do this.”

I believe that we do that all the time. “Thoughts are things” as some of the personal development people say. Put out your thoughts to the universe and you will attract what resonates with them into your life.

Being incapable with tools has always been a part of my self-image, and I must have been putting that out to the universe for the fellow I mentioned above to pick up on. I’ve never discussed such things with him or given him any reason to formulate an opinion like that. But that’s what he thought, and in a sense, at least at that point, he was right.

Naturally, I wonder what other ways my self-image has affected my life, and, perhaps more importantly, I wonder what effect the act of successfully completing this greenhouse will have on it.

I’m not building a palace, mind you, but this IS decent sized project, requiring a number of different skills, and I WILL finish it successfully.

More importantly, still, I will become a person who is capable of accomplishing such a thing, and I can feel that component of my self-image changing already. Furthermore, I must be putting THAT out to the universe now, and it is bound to effect everything that comes into my life.

And I’m really looking forward to that.

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