Friday, November 20, 2009

Magic at Marquette

Last night I met with my Marquette University students again. I had to miss last week, because of a nasty head cold, and this week I am still sniffling and hacking out phlegm. But I didn't want to miss this week - germless as I am - because we were talking about Magic.

It's clear from their response papers that some of them read the chapter on Magic from Shambhala, Sacred Path of the Warrior, with skepticism, and some read it with joy. That's natural. All semester I have been toying with the edges of the believable with them - giving them somewhat concrete assignments like "Color" or even "People" and when they come back, insisting that they experienced more than just a moment of "getting the assignment right" - in fact, that that wasn't what they were doing at all, rather, experiencing direct perception, which is, ultimately, experiencing reality directly. At first they were confounded - even the joyful ones - but after a semester of reading John Daido Loori (RIP) and Freeman Patterson and Chogyam Trungpa, and putting up with my weird chalkboard renditions of reality, they are becoming a bit more malleable.

And all of those things would mean nothing if it weren't for the practice. The practice of photographing, this tiny (most of them have little low-power point and shoots) miracle that allows them to share what they see with all of us in a dark room and discuss it. They have become "processed" as Chogyam Trungpa puts it, and like in cooking, you wait until the food softens, then add the spices. Now's when they are ready to absorb the most radical, and also simplest, teachings of them all.

In the chapter, Chogyam Trungpa says that not only is the space we can experience (if we allow ourselves - of course it is always there) spacious, relaxing and nifty, it is also charged with energy. Potential. Spontenaity. In the reading, he actually names it - Drala (above aggression or beyond the enemy in Tibetan) and then goes on to say that in fact there are, in a manner of speaking, Dralas - entities which exist in this space, of this space, which are this space. Even the wildly awake, in love students who accept most of what I or the readings say, took this one with a hard swallow. What? Is this guy talking about faeries here?! He sort of plunks this on at the end of the chapter, and doesn't leave much explanation.

So that's mostly what we talked about last night. After talking about what was mysterious in their lives (The Future, one woman said - these are college sophomores - another mentioned The Origins of Everything - Both Cosmic and Personal - and another, Relationships With Other Humans) I asked them if the cosmic - how the universe began - is really so different from how, say, they arrived in this class. There's an answer for the class - "I signed up for it" - or is there?

"In my Poli Sci class, we talk about this a lot," one student said, very excited. "How can you separate the origin of the universe from your own life?" We reference the Carl Sagan quote Loori used in our readings a few weeks ago - that you can't truly make an apple pie from scratch unless you go back to the beginning of the Universe. Another mentions in German class how they are reading a text which says we don't truly know anything at all, that science is actually less informed or answered than, say, religion.

Ok. Good. We've established space. They've learned a lot in the last 12 weeks - and certainly not just from me or the class or their experiences from this class. So then I drop the bomb.

"What does this idea of Drala entities mean, then? Are they faeries?" All the students shrug, one then shakes his head and raises his hand. "It's more like - well, we can't see it, but we experience it, right? Like the tuning fork example you gave, that we make contact with something, we know it, we have all felt it here, right?" and the rest of the students nod "So it's worth naming, but it sort of doesn't exist. I dunno. Something like that."

This from the student who's an RA in a dorm where a freshman just committed suicide over the last weekend, throwing the whole campus into shock.

"Thank you," I say to him. He's delivered it - or maybe the student's death delivered it - right to our doors. Naming the unnameable, the unknowable. I don't say it's a bit like naming God - these are Catholic, Christian or Atheist students still questioning a lot in religion - but they all toy with this as I wait a bit to speak.

"What about this idea of "beyond the enemy" though? What if we call it "beyond aggression?" They all look at me, dumbfounded. That's understandable. I bring it down to earth.

"See this table?" I sit on the same table every week. I like it - just the right height, swinging my long-skirted legs. I can see all of them, all their heads, and the whole chalkboard from here.
"I like this table. What if I were to go to the department head and say 'I really like this table. Please let me take it home,' and he says to me 'You know we are having a shortfall this year, Miriam, we really can't give up any table,' and we fight about it. Is the aggression only between me and the head of the department, or somewhere else?"

They squint at me, some giggle a bit. Really? Man she's a weirdo. What weird examples.
"What are some things like this in your life?"
"Grades," one pipes in.
"Getting good grades is good, right?"
They are Honors students. They all nod vigorously.
"But sometimes do you hurt others or yourself to get them?"
They keep nodding, some smirk, some look sad.
"Where's the aggression?"
"We're too attached to getting the good grades, just like you are too attached to getting the table."
I nod.
"And in that same German text," the student who mentioned it earlier rushes forward without raising her hand, eager, "it says that if things are too tight, there's no room to move."
"Right. Does hurting yourself over getting good grades mean you will get them?"
They frown, some look sadder. "No," one student answers.
"Because we miss out on the world, we miss out on joy, spontenaity, trying too hard. And we hurt ourselves, and sometimes others." You can feel the loss in the room. It's palpable.
"So if we let some space in, some not knowing, some doubt even, what happens?"
"There's room for change, for joy, even for pain, but also for --- (she gulps) Magic."
Ah. Yes.

The silence in the room is deep. This is not ordinary, is class over yet silence. The students are struck dumb, literally. Which is a good thing. Beginner's mind penetrates the darkened room.
"So when I am fighting with the department head, and I have aggression with him, where else is there aggression?"
"With the table. You're being aggressive toward the table."
"Is the table aggressive toward me?"
They laugh and shake their heads no.
"Ok. So you know how I told you to watch your energy photographing people? How that was really hard because - as he said - relationships are hard and mysterious?"
They nod.
"Guess what. You have had relationships this whole time. With color, with light, with a chair or table or oak leaf."
They nod.
"You have a relationship with everything, and everything relates to you. There is always energy there, and that energy - when it is open, without aggression and totally aware? That's beyond aggression. That's Drala. That's what we are naming."
"And when it's not Drala?" someone asks, frowning.
The German student answers her "There's no room for anything."

There are no class bells at Marquette. The class ends when we end it. I am remiss to do the normal closing up stuff - remind them of our show coming up, wish them a good Thanksgiving break.
"When you are shooting the next couple of weeks, don't forget about this. Heck, try to remember it even as you eat cafeteria food. (some groan) It's up to you. You are the gateway."

They get the hint. It's the end. Three out of the seven smile as they stand up, looking right at me. The rest don't chat like usual, deep in thought. I catch them up on what's due and wish them a good holiday. When they leave, I cry for a moment, spontaneous tears, totally unexpected, and completely without aggression.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Learning Not to Attack Panic

Last week I had what I quickly realized was a panic attack.
Even more astonishing was the realization that I have had them before, once every other month or so - that in fact, they punctuate the PMDD I take anti-depressants for - but I had never recognized them as being panic attacks.

I spent a couple of hours frozen, unable to act, feeling pressure from even the tiniest inclinations, desires, much less obligations. Luckily, Dylan was coming home early, and as soon as I was able to cry, I was able to release enough of the anxiety to see more clearly. That's when I asked him, since he gets panic attacks, what they feel like.

It felt good to have a name for the frozen feeling, the state of total alarm, edginess, and shock that accompanied my life every few weeks, along with large bouts of grief, until a year and a half or so. Funny that no one ever called them that before, not me, not my therapists.

This week in class, there seems to be an ongoing lesson we are all learning. It's not relevant to the topic I am assigning this week - not directly - so I am not sure why it keeps coming up. I'm not bringing it up. And yet, there it is. It started early in the week with someone writing about how even a car mechanic doesn't know for sure what is working or not working in a car - they can only tell what is *not* wrong. This is the nature of diagnostics - process of elimination, guesswork. This is true for science, medicine - and now that I say it out loud, it makes perfect sense. No one really knows anything. There's constant guesswork, is all.

But at the time it really hit all of us in the class how many "experts" we rely on to get through our lives and how angry we can get at them (especially doctors) when they are wrong. Various conversations like this cropped up in EVERY class of the four out of five so far this week - one woman brought up her anger at the federal level doctors who now claim maybe the H1N1 vaccines won't work, for instance. Someone else pointed out (her father is a doctor) that doctors don't know everything - that especially with a mysterious illness like a major flu, it's more a set of games around what this flu isn't - which strain it isn't, which origin it didn't come from - than what it is. Sometimes it takes releasing a vaccination, a gamble, to realize that the guess was off.

So it is with psychiatry, too. I came home and took a nap - still recovering from the cold which began the day after the panic attack, as if to cap it off - and when I woke I realized that this wisdom passing in and out of all of my classes is true as well for my panic attacks. The doctors, even me, no matter how many words or books or data entries we make, it's all a matter of guessing.

And why? Because the world is a really rich place, with quite a few pitfalls and many many hot spots. More mystery than anyone can shake a stick at. And truth is, I'd rather it be that way. So I'll trade in the expertise - today, at least - for some mystery, and try not to attack the panic next time it comes.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Cashing In

I have been sleeping a lot the last month or so, since my last trip to Taos, banking up the hours of rest, getting all I need, fighting off the flus and colds and "other" things that have taken down any one of my over 40 students a week, not to mention retreats and travel and other petri dish circumstances I am quite often exposed to.

Before I left Taos, Natalie warned me that maybe I shouldn't hug my students any more.
I have stopped kissing those (there are a few who do that) on the lips.
But I knew I would get sick eventually.

For the last three days I have cashed in on the germ bank, fought off a cold, gotten into the cold, and now I can feel myself coming out. "Easy there," the cowboy riding the horse of this illness warns, "no reason to push too hard."

Just got off the phone with one of the folks in our Madison Miksang community who has been sick now for almost a whole month - one thing after another, never fully recovering. So yes, I am going to take it easy. Do one small thing - go see the Rauschenberg exhibit at MMoCA and then come home and continue to rest.

Now it's time to cash in on all that sleep, and the more sleep I've had over the last few days. Cash in on my lymph nodes, my ginger teas, my immune system, which has had a month now to get strong and fight this off. I'm banking on it to stand up strong.

Monday, November 09, 2009

A Poetic Aside

I've been really busy making a chapbook's worth of poems over at Poetic Asides this month.
I did their Poem A Day competition in April of this year, and helped to judge the preliminary results. This time it's the same idea, only with the "goal" of making an end book (ala NaNoWriMo).
The participants will spend December revising it, and in January we'll submit our final revisions that someone will win and get it published through Writer's Digest.

Check it out. You can start late! Or read along...