Wednesday, January 31, 2007

being prayer

My family was not one that embraced religion overtly; although we went to church on special religious days, I attended Sunday school as a child, and my education from grade school through graduation was at a Church of England school for girls. My parents, at least in my growing up years, were not actively religious in any defined traditional sense. What they offered us, however, was respect for qualities inherent in so many faiths: honesty, tolerance, integrity, equality, kindness, and a sense of social justice.
My father was a famous man during my childhood, a federal labour judge, who became Chief Justice of that court until retirement, and who helped define Australia’s history with decisions that supported fairness and equality in wage and living conditions, such as equal pay for women (some of his work now sadly dismantled as the tides have turned, the world a different place). My mother was a social worker who worked in prisons and with orphans and, later, with university students. Our comfortable home was a place of discussion and learning, where we were encouraged to develop an open mind.
Once, in my early and very rebellious twenties, I did something inherently dishonest that abused my father's trust in me, and could have destroyed his career, although he was in no way directly involved. I was thoughtlessly defiant in my action. When he found out, he did not get angry or chastise me, but spoke gently with me about what I had done, and its implications. This had an enormous impact on me; I remember sitting in his spacious office, walls of windows leaning into the magnificence of Sydney harbour, and feeling small and sad that in my blind arrogance I could have hurt someone who had loved and cherished me, each and every day of my life. That exchange taught me not only about my father, and why he was respected by so many, but more importantly I learned about integrity, consideration, and how one’s actions impact others. And he showed me that lessons could be taught through kindness, not harshness.
Of my own volition, I went through two very religious periods in my childhood. The first at about eight, where I thought a lot about Jesus, and would weep at how much he had suffered for us, and wished that I could take his pain away. Then again, for some time in my early teens, I attended church and Sunday Fellowship, a program for youth; I wanted to be one of Mother Teresa’s nuns, though would never have had the confidence to take such a journey.
Some years ago I found an essay I wrote for religious class at about age 15; the topic: “Buddhism”. I was startled to come across it, and it was an odd sort of concoction in some ways – I don’t know what my research sources were, but there was my first exploration of the faith that so many years later has cracked my heart open wide.
I prayed as a child: the more formal prayers in church or school, but also prayers from my heart. Sometimes the prayers were fervent, even desperate, trying to reach ‘out there’, across that invisible distance, with a clear voice. Prayer as a method to communicate with God or that essence or whatever I could name it, which always seemed so potentially vast, yet so separate from me. Beyond the stars.
Jetsunma urges us to pray, especially in these troubled times. When we recently offered to do a 24-hour prayer vigil one day each month at Dakini Valley, she said “Good, we need all the prayer we can get”. And, as many of you know, at her instigation KPC has for over 21 years held a 24-hour prayer vigil dedicated to the end of suffering and world peace. Unbroken. Day and night, every single moment. For over 2 decades. As Jetsunma reminded us some years ago, “Wherever you lay your head at night, someone is praying for you.” What a gift of love.
However, as I pray now, and even in the depths of despair as for Nyima the other night, prayer has a different meaning for me than in my childhood. Of course, I am still drawn to pray to the Guru or the Buddha of Compassion, as if they were somehow somewhere else. But I know they are not. They are as close to me as my breath, they are the beat of my heart, the blood in my veins. They are the source of the words that I utter, as well as the response. The turbulent storm and resultant calm both arise from the same great sea of potential.
For me, now, prayer is an expression of being; one’s life s becomes prayer. It is not something only to say, it is a method to realise that those very qualities we call out to are already present in our hearts and lives. The compassion is ours; the kindness is ours, the wisdom is ours, the courage and perseverance. The gift of prayer is that it changes the heart, and by changing the heart, the whole world shifts. This is its absolute magnificence and potency. Mother Teresa was one precious example of life as prayer. But we are really no different.
I am grateful for prayer. It is a solace in the darkness; it is the joy of laughter and gratitude. It is what unites so many of us, drawn to create an environment in which tolerance prospers. Whether we whisper or cry out in anguish, it is the softening of the heart that is so potent. As our hearts and minds become pliable, we will recognize the qualities in others and ourselves that will create the changes we yearn for. Prayer is not only an act, it is a state of mind. It is a commitment to basic goodness. It can be the moment we wake from sleep to embrace another day. It is who we are, what we are. We are the force of change, prayer helps us to remember this, and to know the strength and courage and compassion of our nature.
Both my parents are long dead, and I hold them in my heart. They laid the foundation that brought me to the precious place I now find myself in. They taught me honour and respect and kindness, to know one person can make a difference. Although I would not have thought it then, my childhood was never separate from the essence of prayer.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

sorrow and fear

Nyima did not come home with us today after our late afternoon walk. We had set off around 5pm, and did one of the regular short routes, this time to the back corner, past the earth ship meadow. I was wearing gumboots, because of the mud, and decided to wade home in the creek. Nyima crossed to the other bank, doing her independent thing. Milo cris-crossed, wanting to stay close. I lost track of Gypsy, but knew she would not stray.
My plan soon proved foolish, the creek is deepened by winter snow, and I quickly had 2 wet feet, icy cold. I climbed back up to the meadow, to be joined by Milo and Gypsy. The last thing I saw of Nyima, she was running along the hill behind the corral, barking. It is not so unusual for her to do this, and I have learned that fear does not help. I used to try and run after her, now I realize I have to let it go. Instead, I pray.
I pottered around in the yard with evening tasks– wood to be brought in, a short game with Milo….Gypsy hovered, wide-eyed, for her dinner. Regularly, I went to the back gate and called.
As night began to sheath the sky, my concern increased. I drove to the corral and called again; sometimes she will come to the car. The air was garlanded with sounds, as my ears searched for her. Was that the creek, or the tinkle of her collar? I went back home, alone.
I made 3 bowls of dinner, as always, but it seemed so strange to feed only two. Her absence filled the kitchen. The others sensed my anxiety, I think. They had a short raucous game together, but that, too, felt odd.
At about seven, I returned to the corral. Fortunately, the moon is half-full, and the landscape mutely visible. More rustling in the trees, but nothing. As you know, we have javalina here, and how many times have locals told me they can kill a dog. Not to mention the mountain lions recently heard close by.
My prayers increased in intensity, I felt so helpless. My feet, still in wet socks in the gumboots, were freezing, but that seemed so inconsequential. Again and again, I went to the gate, went towards the barn, called, looked, prayed; sorrow, hope and fear a potent mix in my mind. She has a thick coat, she will not freeze overnight. She will come home soon. She has a new tag on her collar, with my number. She is lying, her body torn and in pain, alone. I will stay up all night for her in prayer. What if she never comes back.
As my posts have perhaps relayed, the last months have held some difficult times for me, and even recently the days have not been smooth. Tonight that crystallised with Nyima’s absence, and I broke, sobbing with anguish. And I thought of every mother who lives constantly with this edge of sorrow and fear, all the people searching for those who are missing. All the beings who are lost and alone. And the thousands of families with sons and daughters fighting the war – any war – who must exist on this razored seesaw every moment, every day.
To be honest, my sobs were a mix of prayer and an overwhelming sense that I am not effective. Sometimes it all seems so hard, and I see so little movement or change. And how can I make a difference for many, when I cannot protect even one. The path I am on is precious beyond measure, I know this to the depths of my heart, and ultimately it is simple: requiring only compassion beyond self. But tonight I again recognized how excruciatingly challenging it also is, simply to be that which I am. My heart was ripped open for Nyima, and the fear that she was gone from my life.
At about 8 o’clock I went out again, and this time my ears rang true. She was at the front gate, waiting, icicles hanging from her belly, a little weary. I clutched her and wept, and thanked Tara and Guru Rinpoche for being my prayer and its response.
After eating, she got on the couch – her space to sleep. I sat beside her and stroked the silken softness of her coat. Milo joined us, as frequently happens in the evening, and settled on the other side of me, and then – for the very first time – Gypsy came over and asked to be included. I made her a little space and she jumped up next to me. All of us, together on the small couch, in the warmth of our home. Gypsy stood for a few minutes, Nyima nestled at her feet, then she bent and gently placed her nose to her sister’s, and gave a brief wag of her tail, before jumping off and back to her bed. I know we were all relieved that she had some home, safely.
And I wish this, from the depths of my heart, for every being lost, and for those that search for the missing. Or who anxiously wait, not knowing. Yet the essence of my prayer is that we all will swiftly discover we are neither alone nor apart, we cannot truly be lost. We may experience the anguish of sorrow and fear, as I did so deeply tonight, but within and beyond that is a ribbon of compassion, joy and certainty that binds me to you, and them to us.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

within the stillness

Threads of winter have woven in the creek; in the numbing cold of our morning walks the water is frozen, sheathed with crystal, inlaid with crisscrossed tracery. Beneath, the rocky bed is decorated with the chocolate and gold of sycamore leaves, their edges blurred by the icy covering. The only signs of movement are where the creek descends, and water has transgressed the ice, clambering over rock piles: determined, urgent.
I am reminded that within the stillness is activity, and within activity, stillness. The creek appears stationary, silent, peaceful: frozen in space. Yet within what I perceive, the water still moves constantly from here, to there. Action and stillness, inseparable, united, in this small piece of time and space.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

writing, the heart

You know its cold when the water in the toilet bowl is frozen, as I discovered in Jetsunma’s laundry room: and that at the end of the day, not at the beginning! The air turned bitter yesterday afternoon as we were feeding the dogs; I wrapped my scarf as best I could around my naked skull, but that was negligible protection. By the time I got home toes, fingers, bones were chilled. Many of the dogs enjoyed snuggling in their igloos, while others rejoice in this weather – out and about even as it snows. Nyima is like that, as well: snow, rain – she is oblivious. Poor Milo and Gypsy get chilled and shivery sometimes, and I rug them up in jackets or sweaters – something Milo is happy with once on, but the dressing process itself..…!!!
I am sorry to be a delinquent blogger, it is not due to a lack of wanting – it’s far subtler than that. The temperature doesn’t help – the computer is in Jetsunma’s library, which is next to the laundry and also unheated and uninsulated, and the water in the dog bowl there is frozen, an indication of how I feel if I spend any time at all in front of the screen. Certainly not conducive to reflective or creative writing. I have now set up a loaned laptop in the log cabin main room – the only heated space - and I was given one of those gizmos the size of your thumb that manages to store uncountable words in its memory, so now I can write in warmth, and sometime later download it as a post.
But its not just the weather, I guess, it’s also that time seems to be shrinking, even as the days grow marginally longer. Despite any good intentions, I am perpetually three steps, three lists, three days (whatever measure I use!) behind where I think I should be, creating a constant, low level hum of stress in my mind. You can see I have not mastered the technique of being in the present, of just letting it go. Although I will say, I am noticeably better than a few years ago, when the internal tension sometimes became almost unbearable – the sense I should be doing something other than whatever activity I was actually engaged in, combined with a perverse resistance to change either the activity, or the thought (or sometimes even to do anything at all), that made living within my own mind an awful dance of despair, for which I was the sole choreographer!
And it not really the time, either – it’s more that life is not what it was in many ways (ah! is this a reflection of impermanence!), and in the readjustment, or however to describe it, sitting down to write has slipped slightly by the way.
A couple of years ago, in exactly this darkened, cold season, I wrote a book about living at Dakini Valley and practice. I sat at this very same window, on this very same laptop, and most every night reflected, and wrote. I was the sole resident here, and sharply aware of the wilderness embracing me; life at the Valley was a different experience than now. Nyima had just joined our family, and Gypsy and I were adjusting to her puppy exuberance.
I was disciplined about writing – which I love to do anyhow, but this process became a practice in itself. The idea for the book had arisen in Jetsunma’s mind, so I knew to embrace it fully would bring more than pages of words. And it did; taking the time to contemplate my life here, and the meaning of practice, helped me recognize better the sameness of the two, and in turn the very acts of contemplation and writing became potent. Before I began, as I sat at the desk, I would say prayers, so that the words arose from the intention of benefit, and then the process of writing was a method for softening my mind. It was a great gift Jetsunma offered me - doing what I love became a tool for knowing the potential inherent in every moment.
Which is not to say I have continued to live with that awareness, but of course neither is it lost, it cannot be. It is the shape and colour and texture and sound of my nature, our nature, but I forget that most of the time.
I was reminded of it tonight, as I went out, flashlight in hand, to remove the peanut filled feeder from the tree, often emptied overnight by the resident family of raccoons. The ground glittered, as if embedded with diamonds, or as if I walked on the sky itself, bejeweled with stars. Momentary flashes, arising and disappearing in less than a breath, yet splendid in simplicity. The earth rich, bursting with light, both hidden and visible all at once. I remember it was like that one night in the winter of writing, although at that time the ground was crisp with snow. I was deeply touched by the magnificence of this place – its capacity to be all that is possible: beauty, joy, awareness – in every single moment.
Our hearts are like that, studded with jewels, the true value of which we forget, or ignore. But they glitter all the same, like a treasure chest, just waiting for the moment when we remember to look inside, and recognize the precious qualities always there.