Friday, May 19, 2017

Turning Forty

Birthday wish list from a student for me on my fortieth birthday.
Tomorrow, I turn forty. I have looked forward to this day for awhile, actually. something feels clarifying, balancing to me about turning forty. For a long time, I have felt like "an old soul" in a young body. Early loss as well as early gains (like becoming a dharma teacher at 26!) have made my life seem a bit more advanced than those around me, even if I am no wiser or more advanced a person than my peers. Not fundamentally. But somehow I feel my age has caught up a bit to where I am, as I humble and realize how much there still is to learn, while also appreciating all the felt understanding my complex life so far has helped me access earlier.

The above photo is a student's gift to me. I used the last week of classes in a series to ask my students - all but 2 out of 28 are past forty, most of them well past forty - to write about turning forty. I heard many wonderful stories, and learned many wonderful things, all of which resonated with what I already anticipate or have been experiencing approaching forty.

The overall feeling was a combination of "giving less of a shit what others think" while also "feeling more compassion for self and others." This is a great combination, and one I am happy to take with me.

My nephew (4 months old) and myself this week.

I got a few personal addresses, too, folks directly wishing me lots of love. And one of my students then took care of our cats while we were out of town, and left me the above list. I treasure it. It reminds me of what I already know and all there is still to know. By "know" I mean crossing the gap between intellectually knowing - there's a lot I intellectually know, especially about emotional/psychological/mind things - and felt sense knowing, or knowing in my body, instinctively.

So long as I reach first for neurotic habits and what classic Buddhism calls "unvirtuous" actions (nothing to do with Christian virtue - simply an expression recognizing what causes benefit and what doesn't - non virtuous doesn't cause benefit), there's more to develop. Most of us are there - in the awkward place where we "know" but don't yet have integrated all the knowledge. I think of this as the gap between knowing and wisdom. Many people have told me I have a lot of wisdom for my age - I've been told that a long time - however, I really simply have a lot of knowledge. Wisdom is slower coming, really. It takes a long time to learn in a way that stays in the body, helps the body reveal its own wisdom.

Or maybe it doesn't. Being with my four-month-old nephew, my wife, Ilana, joked that perhaps babies actually know it all until age one, when they conveniently forget it all. Certainly Elyas seemed completely wise, in a deep, felt sense way - perhaps because he is actually pre-intellect?

Regardless, something is syncing up between my age, what I "know," and what I have some wisdom about. Feels about time. For a long time I've felt older inside than I appear outside, and now, I can see myself aging, bit by bit, outside as well. As folks in their 20's begin to look at my skeptically, I feel some loss, but mostly gain. Finally. I am a bit synchronized.

I will leave you with a passage from Sakyong Mipham that I have been contemplating lately. On surface level it seems cheeky and funny, but it feels quite profound to me. What is young? What is old? These are easy questions to quip answers to, but actually, they are unanswerable (which, you will see from my previous post, are my favorite kind of questions lately).

I RECENTLY REACHED AGE FORTY, a turning point in most people’s lives. Before that birthday, people would routinely describe me as a “young lama” or a “young teacher.” They were always exclaiming, “You’re so young!” But when I turned forty, something surprising happened. They started saying, “Oh, you’re getting old.” One day I was young, and the next day I was old. One day I had all the time in the world, and the next, time was running out. I thought, “What happened to the in-between period when I could just be an ordinary adult?”-from Ruling Your World

Thursday, May 11, 2017

The Importance of Unanswerable Questions

Recently, I've been wondering what makes something contemplative. Having just finished the second book on Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography with my teacher, John McQuade, and having just finished a round of contemplative writing weekly courses, I am poised at a spot of post-immersion and contemplating what it means to contemplate.

I get this question a lot: What is the contemplative aspect of these practices? Is it that we only write about or photograph content that "seems contemplative"? That's too restrictive a definition, and if people are hoping to illustrate a feeling of contemplative-ness in either words or pictures, they quickly find out that is a misconception in these two forms. Does it mean calligraphy, flower-arranging, in terms of forms? No, we can even do contemplative, angry, Jackson Pollock-like painting, if it is does from direct experience and perception.

So there is one answer, from my tradition(s): contemplative practices slow us down enough to connect with what is actually happening, and create from that place. In Shambhala Art teachings we call it "Square One" - the open unknown before we create ideas or concepts. Returning to that in writing, photography, calligraphy - or dance, painting - even in conversation, is essential for maintaining the open-minded and -hearted quality of contemplative practice.

My co-author, John McQuade, expressed it this way in our upcoming book, The Heart of Photography (due out July 1):
This direct contact with visual reality and the experience of harmonization of eye and mind is the first contemplative connection: to be there, with the “there,” through the there. This sounds abstract, but it could not be more sensuous and direct. You actually experience what you experience as you experience it. 
In addition to this open state, or in complement to it, is the importance of unanswered - and unanswerable - questions. Often newer writing students think contemplative writing must be "philosophical" - e.g. ask a lot of questions, ponder big things. In some ways, that is off - you could be following your mind and writing down a lot of purported answers and opinions, and that would be very contemplative, in the first sense of the word described above in these traditions. But in other senses, that is right on. The key is being with not knowing. Being contemplative doesn't just mean asking, "Does God exist?" - it means being willing to not have an answer. Being contemplative doesn't just mean wondering about the meaning of life, it means knowing it is likely not fully knowable. It turns out the way in to these big questions is through little questions, at least as one of my teachers, John McQuade, and my co-author, also expressed:
(C)ontemplative practices are meant to help us find ways into these big questions. Contemplative practices are little ways, like rocks in the stream, crossing from one side to the other. Rock by rock, step by step, we cross over. These little ways do not provide direct answers to these questions, but they do provide a path for us to engage them...            Generally, contemplatives do not ask big questions such as “What is the meaning of life?” Instead, they investigate little inquiries, such as “What is color as color?” through felt experiences that explore questions like “How does color as color feel? How does it manifest? How is our experience of color? What difference does color make to a situation?” and so forth.

How is it that engaging the small leads to a felt understanding of the large? We cannot answer huge questions with our tiny minds - it turns out the color of things, the shape, the texture - whether expressed in words or images, movements or touch - actually is a drop from the larger, an excerpt with all the full meaning of the large questions:

This contemplative engagement is not religious or philosophical. It is working directly with your ordinary, everyday experience, to release you from stress and help you open to everyday appreciation. Bit by bit, on the rock path through the river, we cross over from claustrophobic habit to natural freshness, from stress to delight, from the thing world to the phenomenal world, from conventional world to ordinary magic, from confusion to insight and wisdom.
Keep an eye on our website for updates on how to pre-order/order your own copy of our new book, Heart of Photography. And in the meantime, you can find copies of our first book Looking and Seeing on Amazon, or, even better, buy direct from us on CreateSpace.

Keep asking questions you don't have answers for, by connecting with the daily details while keeping your heart and mind wide open to the unknown.