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Posts Tagged ‘meditation’

Train 2 (3)

Engine 611

Do you believe in magic?

I didn’t see The Polar Express until I was well over 40, and the only reason I saw it then was because someone mentioned to me at a party that she and her grown son went to see it every December. They had read the book every year as he grew up, and when the movie came out watching it together became their new holiday tradition. It impressed me that it must be a very compelling movie, and I made sure that I saw it the very next chance I got.

Well, I loved it. There was something about all that cold and snow, and the wolves in the forest, and the earnestness of the children on the train, in their little pajamas and bathrobes. I found it perfectly charming and by the end, like the young hero of the story, I completely believed in the magic.

Since the film’s release an entire industry of Polar Express-style excursions has sprung up around the country during the holidays. If someone could guarantee me the snow and wolves and a cup of hot chocolate, I’d buy me a ticket. I do love a train ride.

Last spring Ernesto and I took a day-long excursion on a train pulled by a Class J steam locomotive, Norfolk and Western 611. We had to get up ridiculously early to travel from Greensboro to Roanoke, Virginia and back. For different ticket prices you were assigned to special cars and were entitled to varying levels of refreshment. We chose one of the upper-middle price points to ensure that we had access to all of the snacks we might need. We also had our pick of seats in our assigned car, a 1930s-era railcar with lovely Art Deco features. We chose to sit in a section of the car where the seats were positioned with the backs to the windows and faced a similar set of seating (and windows) across the aisle.

As we left Greensboro, we wound our way through woods and what often seemed like the backside of the real world. We had not gotten far before Ernesto—very much against my advice—fished around between the seats and pulled out an 8-year-old newspaper from somewhere in Montana.

I spent much of my time twisting around so I could see out the window behind me, and Ernesto spent much of his time talking to John Schmidt, a passenger sitting opposite us. John had logged thousands of miles on railroads around the U.S. and was amazingly knowledgeable about Engine 611 and the history of the rail line we were traveling. The ability to watch the scenery and chat with our fellow passengers in such a leisurely way—after all, we had lots of time, and nothing that we had to do—was magical.

But the most magical part of all—nearly as magical as The Polar Express—was the way that the train threaded through towns and tucked-away communities and connected us to all of the people who had come out in the misty coolness of morning to watch the train go by. At every stretch of track that crossed a road, no matter how remote, people were there waiting for us to pass. They waved from side roads and the shoulders of highways; some videotaped our passing from their cars. I loved that. It brought to mind another misty morning train ride, 37 years ago, when I was in Japan for a summer exchange program.

Julie, Dave, Jeff and I spent three weeks of that trip at a conference center in the mountains of Nagano prefecture. Mostly we worked with the kitchen staff: the thin, gentle head chef, Nakagawa; Shigeo, an expert in martial arts; Kuichi, with a heart-shaped face and brushy short hair; and Hideo, who shuffled around in black slippers as if too exhausted to pick up his feet. They and the rest of the staff assigned us innumerable simple tasks: filling salt and pepper shakers, shucking corn, dipping ice cream into small bowls, washing and refilling the square glass marmalade dishes, shredding cabbage for curry. While working, we taught each other our native languages. They taught us the Japanese phrase, “I hear, and I obey.” In retaliation, we taught them to say, “Quitting time!”

When it really was quitting time, they swept the four of us away to sushi restaurants, bars, local temples, ice cream shops, and sites of historical significance. One excursion took us to Nobeyama Station: “Japan’s highest railway station,” Nakagawa announced. Then we drove a mile or two further up, where a stone monument rose from a gray stone base beside the tracks.

Nakagawa stopped the van. “Highest point of Japanese railroad,” he said gravely. Kuichi smiled as if it were an inside joke, but they all seemed proud of the marker. We regarded it for several long minutes before driving back to the conference center for a round of ping-pong and casual vocabulary drills.

Then our days ran out, and it was time to return to Tokyo. Two Nobeyama administrators and the kitchen staff saw us off at the train station. A sad group, we huddled under a single umbrella in the spitting rain. The kitchen staff evidently decided it was too wet to hang around; they bowed their good-byes and sprinted for the parking lot. They didn’t even turn around as they jumped in the van and peeled off.

Julie watched them leave, sniffing back tears.  “We don’t know anybody in Tokyo,” she said, as the administrators settled us on the train with great care.

Soon we were chugging out of the station, moving slowly up the mountain as Julie and I cried ever harder.

Several passengers seemed concerned, so Dave tried to explain, in slow English, “They are fine. They are sad because we are leaving friends.” Julie sobbed, and I choked.

Jeff tried distraction. He pointed out the window. “Look, we’re getting close to the marker at the Highest Point,” he said in his gravel-road voice. “Remember when we came up here with the guys?” 

At first we saw only the top of the marker through the window, then it was in full view.

And there was the kitchen staff. They had driven up to the Highest Point and climbed the little hill that the marker post was on, where they waved at the train as it passed. We jumped into the aisle of the train and waved like crazy. They actually spotted us through the window—you could tell by the way their faces lit up and their mouths opened in exuberant shouts that they had seen us—and they waved with a fervor that matched ours. Then they were behind us, and gone.

Even as the train carried us away, we had never felt so deeply connected to those dear people. It was exactly that way as we traveled behind Engine 611: a feeling of peace on earth, goodwill toward men. And ladies.

I know I should try to preserve that attitude even when I’m not on a train, but it ain’t easy in this world we live in. Sometimes our train is more like the one in “The Celestial Railroad,” a strange story by Nathaniel Hawthorne that is a sequel to Pilgrim’s Progress. The Celestial Railroad passes near a cavern that was occupied in Pilgrim’s Progress by two old troglodytes. Hawthorne tells us that though these vile troglodytes have moved or mouldered away:

…into their deserted cave another terrible giant has thrust himself, and makes it his business to seize upon honest travelers and fatten them for his table with plentiful meals of smoke, mist, moonshine, raw potatoes, and sawdust.

As Andy Griffith might say, “Sounds like a recipe out of the newspaper.”  

It also sounds very much like the menu we’re fed on a daily basis by our national politicians. Oh, I assume that some of them are good people who are trying to do good work. But so many don’t seem to be trying at all.

They need to stop feeding us smoke, mist, and moonshine and try harder. I’m trying! Awhile back I took a course in cultivating compassion and learned the loving-kindness meditation. Here’s the recipe for how to do it from the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Or if you are into shortcuts, simply imagine that you are on a train, and everyone you pass in the course of your day—even that person you don’t much care for—is waving at you, and wishing you well. Likewise, from your comfortable seat inside the train, you are waving at every one of them, and wishing them well.

I am here to tell you: This is magical stuff.

The Center explains how it works:

Loving-kindness meditation increases happiness in part by making people feel more connected to others—to loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers. Research suggests that when people practice loving-kindness meditation regularly, they start automatically reacting more positively to others—and their social interactions and close relationships become more satisfying.

In short, it evokes those same feelings of connection and universal goodwill that I felt as I waved at the nice people who had come out to wave at Engine 611. It would do us all good if we would remember our essential connectedness. As a nation, we are, after all, on this particular train together, and whether or not we’re bound for glory we are certainly zipping along at a steady clip toward the future—and I would like for every one of us to arrive there, safe and happy.

Magical thinking? Maybe so.

But I believe.

 

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Image source unknown.

As the world prepares for the solar eclipse, I am feeling like the main character in Corduroy Mansions:

Was anybody’s life straightforward, he wondered, or did one have to go into a monastery for that? To be a monk and keep bees and make wine for the abbot and lead a life of quiet order and contemplation. Was it still possible, he wondered, or had the world become too complicated, too frantic, to allow such peace of mind? – Alexander McCall Smith

Honestly, having the moon blot out the sun isn’t exactly making an already fraught time more restful, is it? I don’t feel completely comfortable about the special glasses I ordered from Amazon, either, even though they are approved by NASA and haven’t been hastily recalled and don’t seem to be scratched—but who can say? Is staring at the sun really such a good idea?

This is only one of the reasons why peace of mind feels elusive; other reasons are obvious if you read the news. So I am doing what I can to gather about me some bits and pieces of comfort, which won’t protect my eyes but may soothe my troubled spirit. I offer them here for anyone else who needs them.

***

First, I am pursuing meditation with a whole heart. I have learned that peace of mind is always available if we will only sit still and wait for it to catch up with us. The trick is to give it half a chance by not rushing around and doing things. So when my choice appears to be to either explode or start breathing into a paper bag, I turn to meditation. It is the simplest form of prayer. All that’s required is to focus your full attention on your breath as it goes in, and goes out. Since I began meditating daily about three months ago, my blood pressure has descended into much safer territory and Blue Cross/Blue Shield is excessively proud of me, at least judging from the messages they send me every time I log my blood pressure into their Healthy Outcomes website: “Congratulations, Vicki! You’ve got this!”

Meditation is like unplugging and powering down. Remember when Eric Clapton unplugged? “Layla” was my favorite song when I was in high school. I loved it so much that I called up radio stations and requested it all the time, that’s how much I wanted to hear it. (Evidently I didn’t want to hear it badly enough to buy the album; I only bought Fleetwood Mac and Elton John.) Anyway, decades later when Clapton performed the song on an acoustic guitar for the show “Unplugged,” I was appalled. What was “Layla” without the hot electric intro? Well, it was lovely. The unplugged version was as wonderful as the more frantic original, plus I understood the lyrics clearly for the first time. Being unplugged mentally is like that, too. Things are slower, clearer, and more meaningful. It’s the difference between watching a stone skip across a lake in silver flashes of light, as opposed to letting the stone drop into a deep, clear well and following its progress all the way down down down to the bottom. In fact, those exciting silver flashes of light may just be the warning signs of high blood pressure.

Of course, there are fancier ways of meditating, using guided meditation scripts and an app that allows you to listen to recorded scripts. Some time ago I printed a meditation script for compassion and placed it in a notebook where I tuck things that I want to keep, things like ridiculous news items, recipes, and e-mails that I print to read off-screen. Last week when I decided I needed to meditate on something more than my breath, and I pulled the meditation script out of the notebook, took a deep preliminary breath to relax, and read:

“Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.”

I had pulled out a recipe for tomato butter.

Cooking is a lot like meditation, though. Follow the steps with your full attention, and in the end you will gain peaceful acceptance, a jar of delicious tomato butter, or possibly both.

Here is Mary Oliver’s excellent guidance, from her poem “Praying.”

…just pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

***

Last week I received an e-mail from a dear friend in St. Louis:

Speaking of eclipse, how is it going to be out your way? Of course, Jefferson County and Southern IL are right in the path of the eclipse. They are expecting 300,000 people in IL and MO for it. I am taking the day off and spending it with my neighbor and Valerie at a winery that is not too far from my place. It is only 33 degrees off from being perfect. They are expecting 400 people that day and the fun will begin at 9 a.m. So now we just pray for a sunny day. 

I am praying for a sunny day and that Rachel’s special glasses are good ones and haven’t been scratched. But I can’t help being delighted to know that, as the moon travels across the sun, in the St. Louis area it will be only 33 degrees from perfect.

Speaking of eclipse glasses, which are occupying my thoughts constantly and stealing my peace of mind, my sister asked her younger son, Will, if he planned to view the eclipse in his part of the country (Denver, Colorado).

“I guess,” he said.

“Don’t look directly at the sun,” my sister warned.

“So how am I going to see it?”

I am now praying for Will, too.

***

Here is a quote that I saved and need to memorize for my own self-improvement.

We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts. –Pema Chödrön

I will try in the future to wonder how other people are doing and to make sure that I’m not causing damage through my own words and actions. If we all did that and stuck to it, probably we could—slowly and with concentrated effort—move the world to about 33 degrees from perfect.

These fragments I have shored against my ruin.

Be safe out there.

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Icon

It’s not just an art; it’s a practice. Icon painters must stay close to their own inner presence; there are specific prayers used to accompany the craft. It requires an attention to breathing, quietness, stillness; a disciplined meditation where the attention converges on an effort to bring the Being of the subject into the present moment. The icon is meant to open a window between the viewer and the sacred, drawing them into an intimate and personal relationship not with the object, but with veneration itself.

Lee van Laer, “A Consonance of Feeling: Art by Chantal Heinegg–Painting Icons in a Modern World.”

This quote and the icon pictured above are from an article in the Spring 2013 issue of Parabola, a quarterly journal published by the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. Parabola describes itself like this:

A parabola is one of the most dynamic forms in nature. It is the curve of a bowl, the path of a ball soaring upward and down to earth again. The founder of this magazine decided it was a good name for a journal devoted to the search for meaning, which often goes outward, then back home again along a different path.

I plan to approach my next writing project with the attention, stillness, and disciplined meditation necessary to create something iconic. My material will be local things:  the Saxapahaw General Store, a tin-topped pie basket. and a peculiar pillowcase. For I spent today going outward, and I came back home along a different path.  I don’t know that I gained meaning on this journey, but I certainly enjoyed it. And I did gain a really nice pie basket.

(Parabola itself is a sort of icon–a window to the sacred. If you can’t find copies in your local bookstore, try the library.)

IMG_1402

Mandala - or possibly a pie - on tin top of pie basket.

Mandala – or possibly a pie – on tin top of pie basket.

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“Wilson’s Bird of Paradise,” by Diana Sudyka (2007).

“Here is an entry from my journal that fell off my desk and landed on my lap and opened to this page.”

This quote is from an article (“Prayer, Poverty, and Creativity”) by Brother Paul Quenon in Parabola’s Spring 2012 issue. The quote had been pulled out and featured in a largish text box, so it was impossible to miss. And since I’ve been having trouble figuring out what to write about, I took it as a sign and used it as a writing prompt: I would randomly choose a page from my own online journal and use it as a jumping-off point for a blog post.

This was a risky move. Brother Paul’s journal entry was a meaningful and beautifully written meditation on prayer; he used it as the foundation of a piece about contemplation and creativity. He wove in some lovely poetry by Thomas Merton and Emily Dickinson. Altogether it was so wonderful I could hardly stand it.

But I randomly opened one of the journals I keep on the computer and landed on a passage that was quite colorful and referenced an original poem of my own—a bonus. I dug the poem out of the archives to include as decoration and make my post more like Brother Paul’s piece. Not that I am presenting my journal entry + poem as comparable to Brother Paul’s—far from it.

(In fact, as I tried to jot down some notes about the article so I wouldn’t forget them, I found that my pen sputtered and spit in a really aggravating way. It’s my favorite pen, mind you. Usually it writes very smoothly and is a pleasure to use, but once in a while it becomes cantankerous, distributing ink unevenly or not at all. It seems to like only the finest paper, and performs well only at a certain temperature. This led me to contemplate that I am exactly the same, myself. Once in a while I am able to write clearly and say precisely what I wish; other times I have a devil of a time getting anything down at all, or it comes out in such an unholy mess that it makes me stamp around and sulk.)

The journal entry that fell open (though not on my lap) was about just such a day. So without further ado, here it is, with a poem in the middle:

I have started a story, but it’s not going well.  I got distracted and had to write a poem for Will’s birthday, because I forgot his birthday until several days after it had passed.  Lateness required that I write him a poem to make up for it….  Funny thing is, last year I wrote him a birthday poem because he whined for one, and I ended up writing about the Florida wildfires. I got up this morning and there it was on the news:  more Florida wildfires.  There must be a connection between Will’s birthday and conflagration. 

William’s birthday?
No, it’s not!
(Yes, it was.
I just forgot.)
My perfect record
Has a blot
His birthday passed,
And I forgot.
Blame it on
A wicked plot!
Faulty calendars!
Advanced brain-rot!
Blame on, blame on,
It matters not—
The simple truth is
I forgot.
But William, here’s
A worn ten-spot.
Is all forgiven…
…and forgot?

A couple of nights ago we watched “Attenborough in Paradise” on PBS. David Attenborough went deep into the jungles of New Guinea to film birds of paradise. They are really amazing things, with brightly colored feathers that shoot out in all directions like fireworks.  My personal favorite was the Wilson’s Bird of Paradise.  The little curled tail-feathers are precious, and the Carolina-blue helmet is nice, too.  I found the most adorable painting of this bird at The Tiny Aviary blog, and the artist, Diana Sudyka, wrote underneath it: “I swear I did not make this bird up.”  It does look like a made-up bird.

Speaking of birds, last night on “Bizarre Foods” Andrew Zimmern was in Spain. He traveled out into the countryside and stopped at a restaurant where the chef prepared sautéed rooster combs and served them with rice. Andrew tried one and said, “Oh, they just melt in your mouth.”  Here’s what he wrote about it on his blog:  “A rooster crest really is the zigzag crown that sits on top of a rooster’s head. They are braised, peeled, and then some of the crests are chopped and stirred into the risotto, while several others are napped with a chicken glacé and perched atop the finished dish. If you love chicken feet, imagine all the gelatinous delight of those morsels multiplied by a factor of 100.”

The next day, Ernesto was still talking about his suddenly urgent desire to go to Barcelona, stay in the country, and eat delicious cheeses and ham.  “And rooster combs,” I reminded him.
“Rooster combs?” he said. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”
“Why not? Andrew says they melt in your mouth.”
Ernesto considered this.  “They will have to melt somewhere else,” he said.

Now that I’ve pieced together my journal entry and poem, illustrated it with Diana Sudyka’s wonderful painting (used with permission), and have run out of ink, as it were, I’m going to go back to Brother Paul’s article and pull out the essence of what he had to say about creativity:

True creativity does not need an excuse. It is its own motivation. It is spontaneous. It need not win public recognition, and its aim is not success.

Success is not the goal of creativity. Success can be a threat to creativity and become an end to itself. As Merton said, “If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.” Creativity, as life itself, is grounded in and shares in the sacred. … St. Benedict’s Rule for Monasteries opens with an appeal: Listen. … Listen, obaudire, also means obey. In listening, something new can emerge, something beyond my own assumptions, control and agenda.

I hear you, Brother Paul. I hear you.

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