Saturday, January 17, 2009

While I'm gone

I will be away for approximately two and a half weeks. I am not going to muddle my head with the stuff I've been pondering. I am going to learn some history and culture about four African nations, search for and hope to photograph wonderful animals, and spend the time with an adventurous group of my contemporaries and a bunch of local guides, drivers and others who I may meet. I'm excited about all that. I'm also delighted to be leaving the frigid weather [it's only 6 degrees this morning] to go into the middle of summer -- geography is wonderful!

Meanwhile two quotes. The first a short poem, It's called "Love Letter" and that is it, but it has a message about current events as well, although probably that was not on poet Carole C. Gregory's mind when she wrote it.

Love Letter

Dear Samson,
I put your hair
In a jar
By the pear tree
Near the well.
I been thinkin'
Over what I done
And I still don't think
God gave you
All that strength
For you to kill
My people.

Love, Deliah

And a quote from Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now, which does follow on from the previous posts. I think it's worth at least a couple of reading and quite a few meditation sessions. [Not the last work he uses is "freedom" not God.]

"When you recognize that there is a voice in our head that pretends to be you and never stops speaking, you are awakening out of your unconscious identification with the stream of thinking. When you notice that voice, you realize that who you are is not the voice -- the thinker -- but the one who is aware of it.

Knowing yourself as the awareness behind the voice is freedom."

Friday, January 16, 2009

Emotiional Awareness, Ekman, Dalai Lama

I finished the book I just wrote about, Emotional Awareness, and learned very little for a lot of slow reading and struggle. I very much admire the Dalai Lama for his willingness to engage in dialogues such as the nearly 40 hours, over 3 or 4 years of visits. He is trying to understand Western thinking and quite a few Westerners are trying to learn from him. But finally I have a feeling that Kipling had it right: East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. I don't want to believe that. But this book does not disprove it.

Many Westerners now call themselves Buddhists and practice various sorts of Buddhism. This is a very new phenomenon. In the late 1930s when Theos Bernard [about whom I've done much research] lectured across the country about his visit to Tibet and what he had learned of their religion it was an exotic performance [in his silk robes he had had made for himself] and seems to have been forgotten very rapidly when the country was plunged soon thereafter into WWII. But then we became so prosperous and complacent the hippies rebelled and the more serious among them began looking for not only alternative hair and clothes but religions. If one reads the publications, Tricycle, Shambala Sun, etc. they reflect many takes on Buddhism. Also there are many Buddhisms, the Dalai Lama's being only one of several ... which historically in Tibet was also true but those variations were Tibetan and different, of course, in background and language and concept from American.

I began trying to understand the concepts to get a feel for what Theos Bernard had brought back; but that is beyond me, especially since I cannot read the Tibetan texts he chose to study. So I'm very much a dilletante on the subject and look at it as an outsider with my own Western background -- I wind up confused. I finished the book and am still confused; I don't think they resolved anything although Ekman seems to think they did.

In the final chapter Ekman writes of the effect his meetings with the D.L. had on him personally, very profound effects on his emotional life. It is easy to say, "ah, yes. The scientist has been affected by meeting holiness." That seems to be true statement but I really don't know what it means. It is finally the only solid information I take away from the whole difficult book. Is the Dalai Lama holy? It seems he would not say so. But he was trained in holiness from childhood and he is a very intelligent man who learned profound lessons from brilliant tutors and within the Tibetan debating/questioning formula of study and has practiced intense meditations for years. Others too have been trained in this way, and perhaps they too are holy. Unfortunately once again I'm confronted by a word whose meaning I actually do not understand.

These are things I ponder; I feel a need to ponder even though I have little hope of finding answers. Who is quoted, "What is the answer? What is the question?"

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reading heavy stuff

I have been reading heavy stuff; mainly, Emotional Awareness, a discussion between the Dalai Lama ans Paul Ekman who has written extensively on emotions, especially how they are revealed on the face, sometimes very fleetingly, yet nearly always recognized if only subconsciously by others. Again and again as I read I feel they are not talking about the same thing. Often they discuss the Tibetan words compared to English, sometimes one or the other lanauage lacks the concept and, as Ekman remarks, if you don't have a word for it you can't talk about it. They wonder if it can be felt if there is no word. The books raises such questions over and over and often doesn't answer or even try to answer them.

Meanwhile I've been reading a lot of old New Yorker magazines. Since the issues through the summer and fall were full of political articles, most of which are outdated and uninteresting at this point, I've mainly read articles on medical studies -- these have mostly been brain studies. I know that science has fads and fashions like every other field and that presently brain structure and chemistry is a hot topic because. for the first time ever, MRIs and other methods can actually show the brain reacting in very fine detail. Although much has been written lately about studies of Tibetan monk meditators with MRI, that work doesn't get to anything like the fine points of the articles I've been reading about psychopathic disorder, or the work with restructuring brain reactions to phantom limb sensations.

On the one hand I am reading two thoughtful and very intelligent men trying to talk about emotions but they are not taking into consideration any of the newer understanding. For instance, in Tibetan philosophy a common comment is that compassion comes from thinking of each sensate being having possibly once been one's mother. But apparently motherhood in the period when these ideas was formed was a simpler and more loving thing than it is in today's world or has been in many civilizations. So the whole idea goes out the window -- sociological differences are not addressed, let alone what happens in the brain of a severely neglected or abused child -- what pathways simply are not formed, that "mother" is barely a concept or an extremelty negative one. And that compassion may be a physical impossibility. The Dalai Lama has said that if it is discovered that modern science disproved some Buddhist concept then the concept just be discounted, it is wrong. The openness to reinterpretation, to rational and scientific thought is unique to Buddhism and makes it vastly more appealing than other religions [to me and, I think, to many other people].

I'm in a morass of questions and have absolutely nowhere to turn for discussion of these matters. I don't know a soul who reads the literature I read or cares about these subjects. So I display my confusion here simply because these thoughts gnaw at my understanding. I've been accustomed to "thinking in the dark" like this most of my life so I'm not feeling sorry for myself. Just feeling a familiar kind of frustration.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


Perhaps as I get older I get a little more cautious or perhaps I have a long standing fear of Africa that is fostered by many travel magazines and books: "darkest Africa" and the "disease laden land". I did not seek medical advice about trekking in distant parts of Nepal or wonder about diseases in India or China or Mongolia But I did call my internist about what she would recommend before going to Africa. I tell myself: it will be the height of summer, part of the trip will be in the wetlands of Botswana, prime mosquito land. Yes, the literature says we'll sleep under mosquito nets but I know that those nasty little beasties love me in a North American summer. What might the nastier ones in Africa think of my tasty blood?

So Dr. P. looked up the same info I'd seen on the internet and suggested I come in for a hepatitis A shot and fill a prescription for a malaria preventive medication. Well, I asked and set myself up. I didn't have a hepatitis shot senior year in college when an epidemic was felling students left and right including my roommate -- and I didn't get it. What "denomination" it was I don't remember A, B, C? So I found myself pushing up the sleeve of a purposely loose sweater for the shot. I don't like any kind of shot but I am not phobic about it; I simply allow myself a wince and "Ow!"

I had a flashback to the first grade: standing in line in the school cafeteria with all my classmates, no real idea what a shot was. Did some shriek? Cry? Howl? Stoically grit brave little teeth? I don't remember. I remember a sense of dread of the unknown. Those were smallpox shots. Of course I still have the small scar. Children in the US don't have to have those any more. Small pox has been "conquered." School age children have already had batteries of shots, begun back at age six months. Most mercifully forgotten no matter how the infants screamed and sobbed or whether the tiny arms ached or developed rashes or they developed fevers. The hugely empty child brain could absorb and bury that fear and anger and hurt. They don't have the measles, chicken pox, whooping cough and mumps I endured.

I know a man who uses a pair of canes to help him walk; he says he was the last polio case in the NYC area. Somehow he got the nasty bug just months before all his friends and classmates began to receive the vaccinations. So I won't get hep A nor malaria on this trip, nor, probably anything else. I am never happy about adding to America's healthcare cost [and especially not to my own expense] to indulge in probably needless precautions. But there is always that question that the insurance companies jingle in every ad, "what if...?" So my shoulder was somewhat sore last night when I lay on my left side but it's okay today. And science marches on, protecting those of us in the so called first world countries while so many in so called third world Africa and elsewhere suffer from diseases that could be prevented simply with clean water and drug impregnated mosquito nets. No, it's not fair. Never has been, may never be.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Happy Problem?

I could say it's a happy problem to have -- and yet it's not happy, it's nerve wracking at the moment. I realized that my passport which was issued in 2000 and expires in 2010 [March specifically] does not have enough blank pages for the stamps I will acquire during my upcoming trip to Africa safari-ing. So I spent half an hour at a post office, getting the form and information from a knowledgeable and helpful clerk [!!] and sent it off to the office in Philadelphia with the word "Expedite" in red a couple of times" and a not inconsiderable check. Will it get back in time? I feel like a tight rope walker with no safety net now that the little booklet is floating somewhere through the postal system.

I'm very happy to have a passport with so many interesting stamps in it, and due to have more. I also like very much the nearly ten year old photograph -- it's still recognizably me even if the face has given way to various age-related collapses. I shall be very sad sometime in the next several months when I have to get new photos taken and apply for a totally new passport.

Last week I completed a swap letter/photo set called "a kind of senior moment" which showed a high school senior photo and a current photo, side by side, approximately the same size -- plus a letter with an outline of then and now. I looked at those very different pictures -- sure, the same person, but it was quite an interesting exercise to look at the two photos together .. one at 17, one a 70. Could have been worse. The point is the march of time is incontestable. At this age looking back, taking account, counting up the milestones happens more and more often. I think it needs to; this is a part of aging. Those who keep themselves too busy or distracted to look back are missing the chance to resavor the good and learn from the not-good in whatever various way it was not good... and there are so many ways a life can be both good and not-good. We all collect several examples in each basket. It brings to my mind an elderly woman I saw in Thailand with an old fashioned [as in illustrated books I saw as a child] carrying device which was a long pole carried across the shoulders with a basket dangling from either end. She had, I think, bananas on one side, guavas on the other. We have experiences, some very arbitrarily assigned.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Grand Opera

Grand opera is called that because truly it is grand. I was reminded again this afternoon when I went to a HD film from Padua of a performance of Rigoletto. I have heard this opera and known its story since I was 15 but I have never seen it on stage. I was blown away, fiilled with elation and brought to tears. The story is SO melodramatic, the emotions are so simple and raw, and the music is so magnificent, the voices were wonderful and the cimenatography with wonderfully done close-ups was so intimate, that I felt myself torn -- truly torn with the rawness of the emotions. The music, of course, brilliantly enforced those emotions.

And then the theatrical excitement at the end of the second act, after Rigoletto's joyous decision to take revenge on the amoral duke -- the happiest and most deeply felt aria in the entire opera, the clamor of the Padua audience and the look of joy and satisfaction on the magnicently weathered baritone's face, as well as the beautiful face of the Gilda -- then they sang an encore! Never mind that they stepped out of the flow -- it was theatrically exciting! Finally the total tragedy at the end as Gilda choses to die for her good-for-nothing love. Tears, not for the act but evoked by the sweetness of her final reprise of the aria about being in heaven with her mother. The heart went through a flow of emotions that would not be possible in real life but in opera -- all of it doubled by Verdi's musical genius ... Bravo! Brava! Viseceral excitement and then the elation of taking that exciting emotional journey.

A guy behind me said to his date, "You don't get this kind of thing on Broadway." No, that's why it's called GRAND opera.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Catching up, Straightening up

Some straightening up today -- which seemed a fitting activity for a new year's day. I found a notebook in which I had kept some clippings I thought I'd use in this blog but they got buried. I'll get to them, I think, now that I know I have them and perhaps add to the pile. For now, a quote from poet Robert Bly.

We did not come to remain whole.
We came to lose our our leaves like the trees,
The trees that are broken
And start again, drawing from the great roots.

I have recently read another poem by a person struggling to know how to write poetry. The poem painted a picture of an elderly couple in stereotypical old age distress, he slow to remember things, and struggling with physical ineptness, and she in serious pain, wondering if she had enough medicine, perhaps enough money for more. Many people certainly do have these problems and more. It would be dishonest and destructive to deny the deficits of the elderly. But that is not all people nor all the life of the people who do have the problems.

One of my clippings has a headline saying the elderly are, by and large, happier than younger people. They were not talking about wealthy/healthy older people, they were talking demographically, statistically. A great many older people have learned to appreciate simpler things, know the importance of noticing what is beautiful around them, are glad for what health and good things they have. They may have to medicate the pain, may have to worry about the money to pay for it, may forget this or that more or less often, and walk more slowly, can be clumsy. All that; as in Bly's poem, they are broken [by the storms of life that they have lived through] but like trees they have deep roots of experience. I don't want to be soppy or to minimize the negative but I am optimistic, I see older people who are active and interesting and very much involved in living.