Inner Peace Part 2: Mirror and Furnace

Yesterday I traced the spirituality of a Zen Garden stroll, then of meditation based on the ancient Eastern insight that, as the Upanishads says:

This whole universe is Brahman… He who consists of mind, whose body is the breath of life… He is my Self within the heart, smaller than a grain of rice or a barley-corn… greater than the earth.

Mysticism is the general name for this insight: that, in a nutshell (or a barley-corn), God is my Self within the heart.” All major religions have their mysticisms, because all have believers who’ve experienced the transcendent God within their hearts. Islam has Sufis. Christianity has monastic life, with meditation its core practice: the discipline of disposing oneself for direct experience of the divine. Often called “contemplative prayer,” it’s widely practiced by ordinary Christians as well.

Though contemplation, meditation, and mysticism aren’t always interchangeable, they can be for my purpose here. All religions are definitely not interchangeable, but they all share the mystical spiritual experience. This is logical, since there’s only one God; and direct experience of God would be as unmediated as an experience can be. [Read more...]

Inner Peace Part 1: Zen Gardens

Zen gardens were all the rage when I installed a modified version in my backyard some years ago. They still are, I’ve noticed.

Peek behind the gentrified urban home or into a back corner of the suburban lot and you’re likely to see the telltale rock triad, the twisting gravel path, the lone dwarf evergreen, and the stone water bowl of the Zen garden.

Just a peek won’t give you the intended experience, though. Japanese gardens are meant to be strolled through.

The sound of the gravel under your feet is soothing. Shinto priests in pre-Buddhist Japan sensed this over fifteen hundred years ago, and so their sacred spaces were spread with small stones.

The odd windings of the Zen garden path are meant to slow you down, while taking you meditatively through real life in abbreviated form. Medieval Zen priests planned out these gardens as spiritually-directed space. The way to enlightenment is necessarily contorted, they said. The Zen path is designed to take you through life’s inevitable twists and turns without getting tangled or tied in knots.

You might come upon an asymmetrical rock grouping or a single rock with its swirling strata roughly exposed. These are the irregularities of human relations, the ups and downs, the rough and the smooth. Suddenly confronting them, you mustn’t stumble. [Read more...]

Ripping Out My Past

I’m in the attic staring at boxes. One is labeled Journals, 1979-1985. Another is Journals, 1986-1990. Another is Letters: friends and family, 1975-1982. Another…

But I stop to muse: Look at these hundreds of pages of letters exchanged in only seven years. Typed or handwritten originals from recipients; carbon copies of my replies. Yes, we wrote long letters then, and treasured them enough to keep them.

And the journals. Spiral bound notebooks that I kept by hand daily from 1979 until a couple years ago, though the past ten years or so are scanty. That’s because I started using the computer for all my writing.

The journals had been my “commonplace books,” as I thought of them, modeling myself on Virginia Woolf. She kept notes of her reading, notes for writing projects, and personal reflections all in one consecutive notebook. Once I started thinking of myself as a writer, I imitated her practice.

So in these boxes of notebooks is a record of my every thought during about thirty years.

And they all have to go.

[Read more...]

Prado’s Ex-Voto: Dumbfounded By Mystics and Clothing Stores

What might it be like to truly live with God?

Not in the way I usually think I do: sitting twice a day for my regular prayer times, speaking words of praise and thanks while my mind wanders to my to-do list.

No, it might be like this:

An ant stops me in my tracks,
“What’s your hurry, miscreant, no time to help me?”
But it’s not her voice, it’s His…

Or this:

Airplanes are scary
because God is in them.
Embrace me, God, with Your flesh and blood arm.

Or this:

The One who gave me these words is writing this,
with my hand.

These lines on God’s companionship are Brazilian poet Adelia Prado’s, from Ex-Voto, a new English translation of her poems published by Tupelo Press.

[Read more...]

Did Dante Convert Me?

Many years ago, my husband took a job in Rochester, New York, four hundred miles from our Boston home. Neither of us had ever been to Rochester, and we were apprehensive about the move. Our ten-year-old son was more than apprehensive: he was devastated. When we told him about the move, he burst into tears—because Rochester didn’t have a major league baseball team.

The move was scheduled for the end of the summer. Sometime mid-summer, I decided I needed to start reading something long and engaging, as a stable grounding during the uprooting of the move.

Though a firm agnostic at the time, I chose Dante’s Divine Comedy. Despite my doctorate in English Literature, I’d never read it. (Well, maybe because my doctorate was in English Literature, the academy was pretty parochial in those days.)

Somehow we had John Ciardi’s three-volume verse translation on our shelves. So I started “Midway in our life’s journey” and continued from there, down into the Inferno. I was beginning my ascent through Purgatory when we loaded the U-Haul truck and drove west.

During the weeks of settling into our new home—arranging furniture, buying fabric to make curtains, finding a good grocery store, helping our son adjust to his new school—I reached the top of Purgatory and entered the dazzling light of Paradise. I stayed in Paradise while raking fall leaves—all the way to the final “Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

[Read more...]


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