Media Fast

Beehive Hermit Cell,  Kilmartin Scotland

I was out of control. My YouTube time had ballooned into a near-addiction. Ever since I got rid of cable I had transferred my downtime to the internet instead of TV. And besides, YouTube is designed to keep you watching long past a couple of videos. I’ve never liked Facebook much but it still took up a bit of time everyday too. One Sunday morning I knew I needed to stop so I had Hamilton lock my iPad in the safe for a week. I need to take an internet break. I still had a laptop (too slow), smart-phone (too little) and Kindle (too basic) but none of them tempt me to do anything but important business.

With nothing to distract me I had to get back to books. I read some fluff on the Kindle and got the news from an actual newspaper and I got back to my early morning reading. I’ve had a routine since I was young of reading something spiritual when I first get up in the morning. I feed the cats, make some coffee and while that is brewing, unload the dishwasher. Then I pour my first cup of the day with just cream, and set to reading. I like to read a chapter or so in a spiritual or metaphysical book and then move on to something else I’m working on. It is amazing how many books you can get through in a year with a chapter a day.

The world is dark and quiet early in the morning and the only thing stirring is my cat Timmy who wants his morning cuddle. It is in this silence that I can open my mind and heart to the spiritual masters and teachers who left beautiful writings to help guide me on my path. During my internet fast I was reading a lovely book called The Way of a Pilgrim and the Pilgrim Continues His Way. An appropriate title for the a perpetual pilgrim to be reading, don’t you think? This spiritual classic was written by an unknown Russian peasant in the 1800’s who’s life was in shambles after losing his home and wife.

The author sets off to travel looking for his spiritual truth with only the clothes on his back and some crusts of bread in a knapsack. He wanted to follow the words of the Bible and learn to ‘pray without ceasing’. With the Bible and another book the Philokalia, a collection of early Christian writings. as his guide and solace, he encounters hardship, hunger, cold and thieves. As his journey continues he finds meaning and comfort in prayer and is able to help many people he encounters on the way. Two books and some bread—that is far from my stack of electronic devises and pantry full of food. Would I have the courage of this man? Could I ever be able to dedicate my life to such an ideal? Times have changed but the need to find our truth is still there.

I will definitely lock up the iPad again if I need a break from the world. I’m not quite ready to be a wandering mendicant but I did learn to put the world in its proper place again. By the way, my second book in the morning currently is about Thoreau and Walden Pond, Expect Great Things, and my third book is about a young man living in a van, Walden on Wheels. I think there is a pattern here. But as appealing as a good wander sounds I think I will stick with my air conditioned house during this hot and humid August and enjoy some vicarious wandering.

The Snow Leopard

photo by Bernard Landgraf

Last week Hamilton and I took my mom to see the movie Born in China. She loves nature shows on TV and it was a nice outing for all of us. So after dinner out we headed to the theater where we were the only three watching the movie. I’m so glad we saw it on the big screen because it was spectacularly beautiful with pandas, monkeys, cranes and my favorite, snow leopards. The narrator had charming and engaging story-lines about each animal mother and child. We watched rolly-polly baby pandas tumble down the mountain followed by young monkeys jumping around their forest home. In the introduction and ending are cranes flying across mountains, lakes and a giant setting sun. I really don’t think I’ve seen a more beautiful movie. But what I wanted to see the most were the snow leopards, the rare and elusive big cat that lives in the high and uninhabitable Himalayas.

I first learned about snow leopards many years ago when I read a book in book club called The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen. The book was written in the 1970’s about Peter’s expedition into the deep Himalayas. His companion was in search of rutting sheep but Peter was in search of himself and a rare glimpse of the snow leopard. He had lost his young wife to cancer the year before and used this journey to look deeply at his life and grieve. The two hiked for weeks through high and difficult terrain with a rag-tag group of porters to reach the sheep. During the long days of hard walking Peter reflected on his personal and spiritual life. He never did see a snow leopard for at that time less than a handful of people had ever glimpsed this elusive cat.

The first time I read this book I understood absolutely nothing. Yep, I couldn’t comprehend anything Peter was talking about. I was young and I had no context for his experience. But interestingly enough I never forgot the book for somehow I sensed that it was important and so is the snow leopard. Over the years photographers captured a few distant images of the snow leopard in the wild but now this movie gives us a look at their elusive life.

I was inspired to read The Snow Leopard again after seeing this exquisite mama and babies try to survive in such a harshly beautiful environment. Hamilton had his copy high on a shelf so I got a ladder and pulled down the small paperback. The pages were old, discolored and rough. I started to read it for the first time in 25 years. This time I understood every word. Time had given me context for this beautiful pilgrimage into a harsh land and a grieving heart. Peter is a Buddhist and now all the words and stories about the Buddha made sense and after having a long walking pilgrimage myself I now understood his journey and deep need for a quest into the unknown. I had finally grown into the book.

At the same time I was revisiting another book I read over 20 years ago, The Ecstatic Journey by Sophy Burnham about mystical experiences. This is another book I didn’t understand on the first read but yet never forgot. These two books came into my life when the words were as elusive to me as the snow leopard. My life experience had no context for the story. But time changed that, for I persevered and built the vocabulary and experience to revisit these spiritual classics and now every word is like a tonic and a blessing. Like the new and amazing images of the snow leopard these books now can be part of my heart for I can see them now, when before they were so hidden with my lack of experience.

What books and movies do you need to revisit? What is waiting to for you to read with new eyes now that you have grown and learned? When time and experience combines with learning and wisdom we build new path ways to new mountain tops and are able to finally glimpse the snow leopard.

Persy on her snow leopard blanket.  It makes her feel exotic and mysterious.

Thomas Merton

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Last week I had the most unexpected delight. Brother Luke from the Abbey of Gethsamani wrote me this note.

Many thanks for the thoughtful and generous reflections about your visit to us. Rest assured, the company of our fellow pilgrims is a blessing and enrichment for us there in the choir. Every warm best wish and encouragement from us all!

I was so pleased that our time together was a blessing even though the Brothers in Gethsemani and I have never met. The quiet interaction of our devotion was equally beneficial to our hearts even though our conscious mind didn’t know the specifics. It is through the quality of our heart the blessings are received. This is one of the great mysteries and graces of the devotion of the pilgrim.

How do we grow the quality of our heart? So glad you asked! Because one of the most important spiritual writers on contemplation and devotion was a Brother at the Abbey of Gethsemani, Thomas Merton. All you have to do is open one of his many beautiful books on the contemplative life and you will find the answers to the way of a Spirit filled life. You may have heard of Thomas Merton before but if you haven’t I want to introduce him to you because he brought contemplation into the 21st century and continues the long line of Christian mystics going back to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. You will find his influence on many of the lives of current spiritual writers.

Thomas, known as Brother Louis at Gethsamani, was born in 1915 in France to non-religious artist parents and spent his childhood going between France, England and the United States. He ultimately ended up Columbia University where he got a masters in literature, with a thesis on William Blake, the first clue of his future. By the time Thomas was in his mid-twenties, he had no living family and a deep Christian conversion. He felt called to the life of devotion and eventually found the Abbey of Gethsamani. Thomas wrote about his childhood and conversion experience and first days in the Abbey in his classic best-seller, The Seven Storey Mountain. With a great talent for writing about the contemplative life, Thomas continued his work as a writer as his vocation in the Abbey. Eventually he was able to move to a small converted hermitage on the Abbey grounds where he could spend his time in the solitude he craved. The last few years of his life (in the early 1960’s), he became increasingly interested in social justice and the common spirit between Buddhism and Christianity. He made a famous trip to India to meet the Dalai Lama and attend a global conference on world religions. Unfortunately Thomas died on that trip in an accident exactly 27 years to the day of joining the monastery.

I’ve known about Thomas Merton for many years but the visit to Gethsamani gave me the context to read his books I had collected. I could spend a lifetime with this amazing writer and mystic. But let us go back to the original question that we asked, how to grown the quality of your heart. Thomas has some beautiful suggestions. He said that you didn’t have to be a monk or nun to live the contemplative life, that the life of prayer is open to all of us. It doesn’t require hours of meditating or renunciation of the world to make your own life an act of devotion. Our lives are perfect for growing the heart for it is the act of taking time to connect with the Divine everyday and see everyone we meet and our work as service to the world. He wrote, “to be a saint is to be myself.” Doing the dishes and the laundry, our commute, caring for our children and our elderly parents can all be acts of devotion and love.

Yes, every part of our lives can be a chance for awakening. One of Thomas’ most profound experiences wasn’t in the monastery in prayer but in a moment while on a busy street in Louisville, Kentucky.

I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. . . . This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Be who you are, love the life you have, spend moments in silence, start and end your day with moments of prayers, sing a hymn, read a scripture or inspirational book, notice the birds and the wind in the trees and realize we are “all walking around shining like the sun.”

Books by Thomas Merton:

New Seeds of Contemplation

The Seven Storey Mountain

Thoughts on Solitude

 

Books on a modern contemplative life by Marsha Sinetar:

Sometimes Enough is Enough  

Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics

Canterbury

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“Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” These word of King Henry II spoken nearly 900 years ago, began a series of events that we still talk about today. Henry II and Thomas Beckett were good pals until Henry made Thomas the Archbishop of Canterbury. Then, Thomas did the unthinkable and decided to not do everything Henry wanted, that started a power struggle that ended when Henry’s henchmen took him literally and murdered Thomas in the middle of the Cathedral. Within hours of the murder, miracles happened with the blood of Thomas. Henry regretted his words and spent a lifetime doing penance. The world began walking to Canterbury for miracles and salvation.

A hundred and fifty years later, Geoffrey Chaucer immortalized the Canterbury pilgrimage and the stories of medieval life. 600 years later. The Canterbury Tales are still part of almost every high school curriculum, except my high school where the stories were deemed inappropriate and not good for me. Oh my.

Since I love reading about pilgrimages as much as taking them I picked up Jerry Ellis’ book Walking to Canterbury. Last year, I read his book Walking the Trail about his experience walking the Trail of Tears backwards from Oklahoma to Alabama to feel more connected to his Cherokee heritage. Jerry wanted to honor his English roots as well by making a pilgrimage in England. He also walked from London to Canterbury along the traditional pilgrim route. Throughout the story, he perfectly weaves The Canterbury Tales and life in medieval England into his own experiences of the local people and places he encounters, walking in both worlds simultaneously. During the pilgrimage, he carved a walking stick with the faces of Christ and Sequoya, to honor both pilgrimages.

When I made my own pilgrimage to Canterbury in 2005 I had never read The Canterbury Tales or the story of Thomas Beckett. What I knew was that Canterbury is a magnificent cathedral and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the highest authority in the Anglican church, As an Episcopalian the prayers always included the current Archbishop. I didn’t walk to Canterbury but took a train from London with my husband, teen daughters and my dear friend Rachael. It was the first warm day of spring and the town was alive with people wanting to revel in the glories of sunshine, blue sky and flowers against the backdrop of Gothic perfection. The day had a magic and wonder I will never forget.

We met up with Rachael’s daughter Anne and her family and bought a family ticket that included all of us as we were family by choice. Rachael and I wandered silently through the cathedral slowly enjoying every detail we could possibly see. I particularly liked the zodiac roundels in the floor near Trinity chapel that date to the 1400’s. Our tour took us to the crypt where we admired the elaborate vestments and chalices. Just at the door to the garden were prayer candles. I lit one and made a vow that I didn’t expect to make that day, a vow to do what the Universe asks of me whatever that was. It was a sacred moment that changed me, a vow as important to me as my baptism and confirmation and marriage.

Rachael and I stepped into the sunshine and were greeted by her 7 year old granddaughter Louise who was impatiently waiting on a bench. “Hurry up Nanny, I’m 72 years old now.” Louise was right. Time had stood still that morning and at least 65 years had passed in a twinkling of an eye that beautiful day.

candles in caterbury

Krishnamurti

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Road to Ojai, California

I had one more stop to make on my library tour of southern California. After leaving the Joseph Campbell library I headed inland along a beautiful twisting road through the mountains and down to the town of Ojai. I had put Ojai on my wish list several months before because I wanted to go to the home and library of its most famous resident Krishnamurti. Over the months before my trip, I read about its charming shops and restaurants and watched some yoga videos that originated in a local studio.

It was lunch time so I had found a little Mexican restaurant with an outdoor patio that had wonderful food. I wished I had time to do a little shopping but I was on a mission. I headed out of town a couple of miles to the Krishnamurti Library and nearby Pepper Tree Retreat Center, only open three afternoons a week for a few hours. The library is in Krishnamurti’s white house surrounded by gardens and a very old pepper tree. The main room of the house is spacious with large windows and a fireplace at one end and two walls of bookshelves with his many books in several languages. There are pictures of Krishnamurti standing in the room 40 years ago and it still looks the same.

Krishnamurti Home

I had known about Krishnamurti for a long time. One of my teachers has taught Theosophy for many years and Krishnamurti is an integral part of the story. Theosophy is a philosophy founded by Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott in the 1870s that is still active today. It combines Eastern and Western thought about the nature of God and mysticism. The headquarters of the new movement moved to India where a young Jiddu Krishnamurti was discovered and expected to be the next “World Teacher” by Charles Leadbeater and Annie Besant. Krishnamurti and his brother Nitya were then educated and lectured all over the world to promote Theosophy and the Order of the Star in the East.

In 1929 Krishnamurti rejected his ties with Theosophy and his messianic status. He chose to take a different way which he call the pathless land. He and his brother had moved to Ojai for the climate and made his home there for the rest of his life. Despite his rejection of being a world teacher he continued to teach, travel extensively and write dozens of books. He also founded Brockwood Park School in England. He had great influence on the changing cultures of the 1960s and 1970s and on the great thinkers, musicians, world leaders and scientist during that time. You might not have heard of him before but his influence on modern society is great. He did fulfill his role as a world teacher but in his own way.

I spent some time in the light-filled room surrounded by Krishnamurti’s writings and then went into the small bookstore and visited with a lovely young women who was there for the next year as a student and intern. I actually have not read much of Krishnamurti’s work so I got a book and some DVD’s to watch.

I headed out to an organic herb garden on top of a nearby hill and had a seat to just relax and breath in the fresh air and sunshine. The garden was so peaceful and the surrounding mountains magnificent. What a beautiful day of gardens, libraries and deeply spiritual men, Joseph Campbell and Jiddu Krishnamurti. They both changed the way we see the world and interestingly enough met on a ship crossing the Atlantic when they young men. I felt I too got to meet them that blissful day in a garden in California.

herb garden

“We all want to be famous people, and the moment we want to be something we are no longer free.”

“I maintain that Truth is a pathless land, and you cannot approach it by any path whatsoever, by any religion, by any sect.”           J Krishnamurti

Krishnamurti Foundation of America  www.kfa.org

Brockwood Park School   http://www.brockwood.org.uk

Theosophical Society  www.theosophical.org

 

Joseph Campbell

Pacifica

Joseph Campbell Library, Pacifica

I was 26 and a new mother when I decided I wanted to be an Episcopalian. I liked the local parish so I had a meeting with the priest to talk about joining the church. We talked about my childhood church and it’s very literal interpretation of the Bible. The priest then said something I will never forget that rocked my world. “You know the Bible is a myth.” Holy Cow! What? Everything stopped in that instant as the foundation of my world view cracked wide open. I barely knew what a myth was, in my narrow world novels, fairy tales, myths and Santa were lies and not allowed. The priest told me to read Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. I read the book but didn’t understand it much, I had no context for the stories or concepts but I knew it was important. It took me an entire year to just wrap my mind around the idea that the Bible was not literal. The stories began touching my heart instead of baffling my brain.

I kept going to church and joined a book club and slowly, stone by stone, dismantled the cosmology of my childhood. When my world view lay in pieces all around me I started to rebuild with the good from my old life but now with the new materials. I read more mythology, Jung and archetypes, and novels. Each new book lead to the next and I spent all my spare time building a new and expanded paradigm that was much more open with plenty of room to grow.

I kept reading Joseph Campbell and watched The Power of Myth. I listen to interviews and kept a copy of Reflections on the Art of Living: A Joseph Campbell Companion in the side pocket of my car. When I had a few minutes waiting in the school pick-up line or for ballet to finish, I would read the wise words. The book was tattered and coffee stained, underlined and loved. The myths, gods and goddesses became an important part of my life. When I went to Egypt for the first time, I knew little of the history but a great deal of the cosmology, I went to live the myths and stand before the gods. I was on the heroine’s journey.

Joseph Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College and wrote about universal themes of mythologies in all cultures. His book The Hero with a Thousand Faces has been very influential in our modern culture and the ideas helped create new myths for our time. Luke Skywalker is a classic mythological hero that bravely journeyed to the unknown to recover his lost self and bring back the wisdom for his society.

In mid-March I was traveling home from Alabama listening to some tapes of Michael Toms’ 1979 interview of Joseph Campbell. I had those tapes for many years and was going to listen to them one more time. I nearly had to pull over, on those tapes where exactly the validation I was needing about some materials I was working on about alchemy. Alchemy is not a subject usually associated with Joseph Campbell but there it was, an interview from nearly 40 years ago, perfect in that moment. The timeless quality of Joseph Campbell’s work is an indication of the deep universal Truths he was able to convey to the world. His work become new again as I grew and could hear it on a new level.

Two weeks later I was in southern California and had a day free to “follow my bliss” as Joseph Campbell so famously taught. I headed up the coast to just below Santa Barbara to Pacifica Graduate Institute and the Joseph Campbell Library. Nestled in a beautiful garden of a campus was a small library that holds all of Joseph Campbell’s personal books. Usually only accessible a few hours a week, the archivist happened to be free so he ushered me into a small dark room with bookshelves from floor to ceiling and a few display cases in the middle. I started to ask questions about alchemy and the librarian got on an old wooden ladder and pulled down a book. It was Carl Jung’s book on alchemy, Mysterium Conjunctionis. In it was Joseph Campbell’s prolific and very tidy underlining and notes. In front of me, under my fingertips was the meeting of two great minds. I turned the pages and read passages and notes and breathed in the magic of those two men who together restored the mythical journey to our modern world. Their work has restored the magic and mystery to my barren, literal life.

I spent a blissful hour and a half in that library, looking at the books that influenced such a great mind. There was an entire shelf of books on the Grail legend, some of them hundreds of years old. I saw his personal copy of his first book and a copy of The Joseph Campbell Companion with its familiar cover. In the display case were some of his favorite artifacts of ancient deity and a small metal ruler he used for underlining. Joseph was once asked if he meditated, he replied “no I underline.”

The Joseph Campbell Foundation   http://www.jcf.org

Pacifica Graduate Institute  www.pacifica.edu

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California Poppys,  Pacifica

The Huntington

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I had visited Southern California once as a teenager and a few times in my early 20’s but it really wasn’t a place that called me. It is too populated and large and the glamour of Hollywood really wasn’t my thing. But now that Alexandra lives in Santa Monica, trips to California will be a regular part of my life. When I mentioned I was on my way to LA, everyone asked if I was going to Disney or Universal, I’m saving those places to enjoy when I have grandchildren but that is many years from now, I’d say around 2032. So in the meantime, I went searching for a place to feed my soul now. I’m happy to say I found a little piece of heaven on earth in the middle of the enormous urban sprawl.

Huntington Gardens and Library combines all my favorite things in one spectacularly magical place: extensive gardens, huge library, art galleries and a beautiful mansion. Really, everything in one amazing package. It was a clear, cool day in March and my precious girl was with me, the day was going to be perfect.

We started along the path and meandered by the buildings to the Shakespeare garden that was in full bloom with purple and white delphiniums. The tall flowers had every conceivable version of purple, lavender and white with a touch of blue. Alexandra’s favorite part was a vast lawn with tall classical statues lining the edges with a final view of the stunning mountains.

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Next to the delphiniums was the rose garden in full bloom, with its intoxicating smell. The large beds featuring hundreds of different breeds of roses with their fun names and unique colors, every color of the rainbow was there and some colors I didn’t know existed.

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We passed through the arches of climbing roses into the next level of heaven, the Japanese garden. The path wound past the Spirit House with a big bell and down into a small koi pond with a classic Japanese curved bridge. We walked up to the walled garden containing dozens of bonsai, miniature trees I had no idea could be miniaturized. The path lead to the Chinese garden with pagodas surrounding a peaceful lake.

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Our hearts and minds were full but it was lunch time and we wanted to see the library rested and fueled up. The library has a large room filled with rare manuscripts, from a Gutenberg Bible and Chaucer to Thoreau and Twain. It is so exciting to see the writing of people who changed the world with their words, ideas and stories.

The large mansion has an extensive European art collection. The most famous paintings are Gainsborough’s Blue Boy and Lawrence’s Pinkie. These large paintings are on either end of a gallery of other large portraits, each one a masterpiece. On to the next building with the American art. I loved the Mary Cassatt of the mother and rosy-cheeked daughter cuddling on the bed, and the Hopper of the sailboat peacefully sailing along the shore.

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Alexandra and I had the time and energy for one more garden, so off to the desert garden, a world we had never entered before. We didn’t know if we were on another planet or had entered a Dr. Seuss book. The plants had unique shapes, colors and patterns, none of the leafy, flowery abundance of our world but a strange beauty of odd confined shapes and prickles. A few acres of this alien world satisfied our curiosity and we headed to the ice cream shop to share a gelato

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I plan on many more visits to the Huntington Gardens, each trip will have new things to see and memories to enjoy, but most of all, I will be with my precious girl soaking up the beauty of our amazing world full of flowers, trees, art and words.

http://www.huntington.org