During my trip to China, I spent some time in Zhejiang province in a small town called Pujiang, about 3 ½ hours south of Shanghai. This town is located in the mountains and in most ways is somewhat remote from the tidal wave of development that has consumed much of China’s eastern seaboard. Quiet, rural, idyllic.
Across the street from the factory that I visited, there is an embankment about 15 feet high consisting of reddish layers of soil. This embankment immediately looked familiar. The color of the layers of soil told me that this particular group of sediments almost certainly dated from the Jurassic era. All over the world, when you see soils of this color, they are either Permian (older than Jurassic) or they date from the age of the dinosaurs. What is more, it was clear from looking at the soils that they were riverine deposits; that is, they were laid down by riverbeds carrying sediments of various sizes, including lots of sand and rounded pebbles.
The landscape had more to say. It was evident from some of the formations in the immediate vicinity (within five to 10 miles) that the area had been subjected to bouts of volcanism. And indeed, when I picked pebbles out of the river deposits, their varying nature betrayed the fact that they were volcanic debris of one kind or another.
Now, you might ask yourself, why would this interest me?
Well, you see, I live in Sparkill, New York, which is on the edge of the Newark Basin sandstones, a huge deposit of river sediments that date from the same era. It was remarkable to me to travel halfway across the planet and finds deposits so similar that date from the very same age. (I have seen them in New Mexico as well.) Not only that, the area where I live is on the Palisades of the Hudson River, a huge dike of basalt magma that, like the volcanoes in the Pujiang area, points towards an eruption event of great magnitude –again, just as in New Mexico.
I’m sure that by now you are asking yourself what kind of spiritual lesson, if any, we can draw from this.
My perception is as follows: it underscores how much the same everything is, everywhere. We make a great deal of the difference between people and societies; the differences between one landscape and another, one culture and another, one person and another. Yet everything all around us is subject to the same laws. Not only that, this has been going on for hundreds of millions of years. The differences we celebrate are mostly imaginary-they are constructions derived from imagination. It’s true that our imaginations are spectacular, colorful, creative, and inventive. But a great deal of what they produce is- well- imaginary, that is, in the real world its validity is rather limited.
This certainly strikes me when I go to China. Their culture appears to be quite different than ours; their customs and habits and attitudes and language are different. Nonetheless, they are all engaged in the same fundamental activities the rest of us are. The main engines that drive them are sex, money, food, and fear.
In many senses we are all enslaved by these forces. We weave an elaborate dream around ourselves that takes our attention away from these basic facts. Yet if we look at the landscape that all of us inhabit, we see that it consists of the same elements everywhere.
That landscape consists of things much like the deposits from the Jurassic which I speak of. That is to say, slow gradual processes that build up sediments by virtue of accretion, and explosive ones that blow holes in everything, only to subside and succumb once again to the forces of gradualism.
Put otherwise, Sex: the interaction of substances to create new circumstances. Money: The cost of that interaction. Food: What that interaction uses to carry itself forward. Fear: the intermittent yet enormous forces that drive major changes.
Life is much like this in both an inner and outer sense for everyone. It’s worth attending to these two sets of processes: observing how we build up layers of being through the process of acquiring impressions, and how disruptive events – usually emotional – blow holes in our carefully constructed layers, rearranging the landscape and scattering debris in various directions.
Much of life consists of efforts to avoid the volcanic events. These efforts turn out, for the most part, to be futile. No matter what we do, explosions take place. The best possible course of action we can take in regard to this question is to continually prepare ourselves for life. We need to learn to work with both kinds of processes to help form the landscape we inhabit within.
…Much more could be said about fear, but not today. I once made the remark that we are all little fear factories. Let’s examine that together at a future date.
I have two little volcanic pebbles from that town in Zhejiang sitting in my collection of stones. Like so many of the other rocks I have lying around the house, most of them will never mean anything to anyone else, including my wife and children. When I die, people will pick these things up and scratch their heads and say, “what the hell was he keeping this for?”
In this sense, the external sediments of my life will seem to others to carry no more rhyme or reason to those who come after me than the sediments in the town of Pujiang do: a random, distant set of events. I was not there when they were laid down; yet every single grain of sand, every pebble and stone in the riverbed, has its own true story to tell .
Those stories belong to them; I cannot know them, or take them away from them. I can, however, respect them for what they, in their mute and timeworn state, have to teach me about myself and about life.
In a brief update from here on the banks of the Hudson River, we had a big snow and ice storm last night.
Winter has not left us yet. Feeling cheated by her late arrival, she has decided to remind us that her strength is not yet spent. And she has, in turn, spent mine: I have shoveled snow and ice today until my arms ache with the good pain of hard work.
Thursday, March 15, 2007
From airport lounges
In what is certainly a first for this blog, I am posting you from a business class airline lounge in Seoul, South Korea. This is a routine part of my existence, this traveling in a kind of sustained limbo for many hours where not much goes on except sitting, frequently accompanied by the loud whine of jet engines. It certainly gives one plenty of time to think.
So here we are, you and I-- or, at least, my words and you. We are participating in a kind of time travel here, where what I say reaches you long after I say it. But for all of us, it exists in the now, as we experience it. No matter what it is that we experience, it is always this way -- immediate. Even the constructions of past and future that exist in the parts of us that can contain such ideas actually exist only in the now. And now for me is a dictation headset, a laptop, and a business class lounge.
In front of me is a huge expanse of glass, supported by steel superstructures. Behind it, just above the top of the windows, a pale gray halo of sun behind clouds descends towards the horizon.
In just a few moments it will be directly, gloriously, in my eyes.
As is so often the case these days, this morning I was actively studying the connections between inner centers, or rather, the lack of connection. It is a mystery to me why the centers, which clearly have the facility to form strong and magnificent connections, are unable to do so under most ordinary circumstances.
To know one's self -- to self-remember -- is to study these parts carefully, for a long time.
Take the time today, if you can, to look very carefully and delicately within. Seek, see, feel. Try to touch those delicate places within yourself which carry the seeds of your own flowers. See if there is a response. Somewhere within each of us lies this new germ of the sacred.
I know this is true for everyone. If you are diligent, blossoms will bloom within you that will feed you in a way that no other part of life is able to. And--if more than one blossom should choose to reveal itself--the ecstasy and the sorrow of the heavens may come to you. Even if only for a moment.
Perhaps that is for the best. We cannot drink too deeply of ambrosia; these earthly vessels we call bodies are too frail to hold much fire.
Mr. Gurdjieff said that the purpose of man's existence is, among other things, to become conscious and responsible enough to take on and share a portion of the endless sorrow of His Endlessness: to share the sorrow of God.
Opening our inner flowers can lead us on the path towards this, which is the most beautiful duty we can ever take upon ourselves. It can carry us forward in relationship with our families, with our friends, with our business associates, our children, and ourselves. It can clear away the cobwebs of uncertainty and the dung of negativity that clutter our inner state. In this way we can actually acquire a bit of that highly prized, mysterious, and near-mythical substance called humility, oft referred to but rarely ever seen.
Perhaps this is not enough to satisfy a man in life. I do not know. We all seem at all times to crave something greater than what is actually possible. But for me, today, it is enough. At least when I touch something real in myself, and that sacred substance flows which allows me to participate, I know that I have at least in some sense performed the duty which I was actually sent here for. As opposed to the byzantine, constructed nonsense we call “daily life.”
I cannot save the world; I cannot save those around me; the likelihood is that I cannot even save myself, because I am too small and lack the power. If this is true, perhaps the best that I can achieve is to accept the few such services I am given the grace to perform. Graciously and humbly, without expectation of reward.
If all of this sounds a bit more emotional than what you are used to from me, I apologize. Perhaps the emotional part is a bit more active in me today.
However it may be, I attempt to come to you honestly, offering you what my experience is and what I know. I would be the first to confess to you that I do not know very much. People think I am a smart man, but the older I get, the more glaring my own deficiencies seem to be to me. Measured against the vast depths of the universe, what I know is absolutely nothing.
I do know this, however. Within all of us live these flowers. Seek them, water them, tend to them daily, and your life will change. This will not be easy, because every flower is a rose, and you'll have to tolerate the thorns in order to grow buds and open blossoms.
In the end, if you are a diligent gardener, something new will come to live in you-- and perhaps you will even find favor in the eyes of the Lord.