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.


  1. I don't know exactly what to comment, my dear sweet Miriam, except you astound me; I wish I had you as a teacher of SOMETHING and that I am honored to call you my friend. I love reading your blogs. You have a voice all your own. I think your book on writing and Miksang or writing and Buddhism....would be wonderful. A whole new generation, beyond Natalie's "Writing Down the Bones." This would be YOUR journey. Anyway, that's what I think of your writing and your blogs. Hugs.

  2. Thanks! More than thanks - wow. That is wonderful. And actually something similar (the voice all my own, not the new generation of Natalie Goldberg) to something Natalie has said about my writing...

    I so appreciate your honesty and vitality and talent, Lisa Marie. Yay for keeping in touch!

  3. beautiful. yay for discovering magic!