Wisdom and Me

I have always wanted to be wise.  So far, I’ve not reached wisdom’s shores but, on occasion, I’ve come close enough to make some reasonable guesses about the terrain.  Since my understanding keeps changing, decade by decade, let me begin by trying to articulate my current view.  Wisdom is the ability to make sense of experience and to make sound judgments based on that understanding.  It is the attainment of a peaceful inner life, far removed from petty concerns and injuries.  And it is the feeling of being connected with all living things and calmed by the loss of a bounded individual self.

As a boy I wanted to be wise because it meant that people might take me seriously, even ask my opinion about important matters.  At age eleven I wandered into a synagogue, not sure what I was after but drawn by the sound and feel of the chanting and the serious ways of the men.  I found moments of peace but none of the deeper meaning and spiritual rewards I had sought.

As a teenager, I began to think of wisdom as a way to rise above the fray.  Those were years of great sensitivity.  I was easily hurt, and finding a refuge from emotional injury had great appeal.  At Harvard, I came upon William Butler Yeats poem, Lapis Lazuli, which described three wise men upon a mountain top “whose ancient, glittering eyes were gay.” This was a metaphor that carried me for some time.  It was secular enough to allay my dislike of religion and romantic enough to soothe my adolescent soul.

I had grown up idealizing the life of left wing intellectuals, preferably those who wore  berets, lived on the New York West Side, published in the Paris Review, and argued passionately with close friends late into the night.  I now recognize the imagery for what it was: the dream of being a learned man, a secular version of the life led by my many rabbinic ancestors.  And, throughout my life, I’ve never strayed very far from this idea.  I earned my badge with a Harvard PhD in intellectual history and continue to read books on history and philosophy.  Maybe this was to be my path.

Before I completed my PhD, though, my mother’s voice began to demand more room in my mind.  Hers was the voice of action.  To continue the Jewish theme, she was suspicious of mere thinkers and believed in justice, tikun olam, for which you must change the world.  So I left graduate school to work at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, helping to write legislation and organize politicians in support of criminal and housing justice.  These were holy grounds, an expression of wisdom, I could believe in.

Then crises struck, one after another. The year was 1971. My father, with whom I had been deeply identified, died suddenly from pancreatic cancer.  My wife and I divorced.  I had a baby to care for, mostly by myself, since my now ex-wife wasn’t so inclined.  I fled the halls of academe, which then seemed self-indulgent and shallow.  My mind entered a state of painful chaos.  I craved any kind of action that would release me from my bleak and obsessive thinking.  I was lost, heart and mind thrown open in search of answers.

If ever I was ready for salvation and a guru to lead me there, this was the time.  But even in the midst of crisis, that was not my way.  Instead, I entered the spiritual pathways as an interested but skeptical onlooker.  I met people who were determinedly marching on the path towards enlightenment.  With them, I read Alan Watts and D.T. Suzuki on Zen, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Tibetan Buddhism, and the wonderful Carlos Castaneda series about the mysterious Southwestern teacher, Don Juan.  I heard Baba Ram Das hold forth and attended three-day retreats at Sufi camps.

The secular commune that I founded, much to my surprise and chagrin, was rapidly transformed by my then girlfriend, Barbara-turned-Saphira–into a Sufi community.  We filled up with young and wide-eyed devotees.  Saphira thrived and I began to drown in their sincerity.  We were often visited by the international leader of the sect, Pir Vilyat Inayit Khan, who would spend the night.  I liked him and I believed that he had things to teach me but, as was my wont, I held back from devotion.  I could not dance myself into the frenzy of Sufi wisdom.

Over the next decades, I continued to read in the fields of mysticism, Buddhism, general spirituality, and transformational psychology, but I never found a particular teacher to follow.  Each time I’d come close, my independent or, some would say, my counter-dependent spirit would rear up.  But it didn’t stop my pursuit of wisdom.  I have continued to meditate for over forty years now—even though the meditation often becomes routine, neither inspiring nor even particularly calming.  I have continued my search for the perspective that brings calm.

The only vessel that has been carried me consistently towards wisdom’s shores has been my journal, which I have pursued more or less continuously for almost fifty years.     It’s a stream-of-consciousness process that, in itself, makes me very calm.

The thoughts, themselves, have been far less important to me than the calm and the process of discovery that the writing brings to my life. It feels like magic.  All I have to do is keep my writing hand moving until I lose an awareness of time and place.  Self consciousness flees.  I am still.  Then ideas, images, and solutions to problems begin to flow.  There are no auras or revelations that visit me.  But at the moment when I am still, I do feel like more than just myself.

As I age, Buddhism’s emphasis on the present has become more and more compelling.  For much of my life, the future was balm to my pain and anxiety.  If things weren’t good now, I could make them better in the future.  The future is quickly disappearing for me.  At any moment, I could become sick or infirm—or I could die.  Placing a bet on the future seems a bad decision.  Trying to suck the marrow of the present for all it’s worth is clearly the better choice.  My long term interest in Buddhism as a trustworthy guide to wisdom is finally the right idea at the right time.

At this point in my life, there are two seemingly conflicting ideas that are most compelling to me.  The first begins with Buddhism’s down to earth emphasis on what is right in front of you – real things, real issues, real people, real injuries and challenges, and real joy.  There is suffering throughout life, says the Buddha.  We know that there is a great deal of suffering in old age—aches and pains and, eventually, the diminishment of self.  These are real.  Running from them only makes things worse.  Facing them contains them.  The pain is just the pain and not symbolic of more and terrible experience.  By containing suffering to what it is, you leave room for other feelings, like pleasure, calm, curiosity, and joy.

The second idea concerns the impermanence of the self.  Here’s how this idea comes to me.  I might be walking, meditating, writing in my journal.  My mind is wandering.  Ideas, images, and experiences from my past come into view.  They are vivid but I know they are not exactly as they were when I first lived them.  They are just images and feelings now, not concrete experiences.  They have changed over the years with forgetfulness and with new experience.  They enter my mind also shaped by my current thoughts and needs—and by future expectations.   My mind has now stretched out from my beginnings into an indistinct future.  It has become timeless.  As I experience this timelessness, I enter a zone that feels vast, oceanic.  In that ocean, I am suddenly unattached and floating.  The sea of imagery grows quiet.  In that serene space, there is no self.  I feel conscious – so conscious — but not self-conscious.

I have no idea if this expanded sense of awareness is wisdom or just a pleasurable sensation but I’ll take it whenever it arises.

 

 

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Seeking Inner Peace in the Land of Trump

I have been tormented by Donald Trump’s presidency.  He represents almost everything I despise: greed, selfishness, pretension, ostentation, and ignorance about important matters that affect the lives of real people.  There is nothing abstract about my feelings and I struggle to distance myself from them.  It’s as though I am responsible, that I could have done something to avoid this catastrophe.  Am I alone in this?  Do you also feel strangely, shamefully responsible for his offenses, for allowing America to come to this?

In an effort to free myself from the torment, I have been casting about in my past to understand why it is so personal, and I’d like to share some of what I have found, hoping that you will also explore and also find ways to free yourselves.

The obvious place to go is my parents and their attitude towards politics.  After all, research has shown that most of us don’t wander very far from our parental trees.  My parents took politics very personally.  Political discussion virtually crowded food from our dinner table.  Whenever their friends came for an evening, politics were front and center.  Everybody had an opinion, everybody was passionate.  Being cool, having perspective had no currency in our home.  Politicians, good and bad, friends and enemies, were the protagonists of almost every story.   From earliest childhood, it was vital that my parents’ three children understand political issues and take stands on them.  It was a measure of your citizenship and your value as a person.  It has always been personal.

The intensity of my emotional and intellectual engagement and the sense of responsibility for political outcomes has held firmly over so many years despite the fact that I’ve rarely been involved in electoral politics.  I read the newspaper avidly and give some money to campaigns.  I speak passionately about issues when asked and often, much to some people’s consternation, when I’m not.  But I don’t join grassroots organizing efforts.  My districts vote the ‘right’ way without my help.  Until recently, I haven’t written about politics.  Why? Paradoxically, it may be that my powerful sense of responsibility has kept me at a distance for fear that I could never make enough of a difference.

The next stop in this exploration takes me to 1945, the year that my father was drafted and sent off to basic training in South Carolina.  Alone and pregnant with my brother, my mother began to call me “my little man.”  That wasn’t the normal tone she would set as a mother.  Throughout the years, she seemed determined to balance my father’s ambitions for me with enough criticism to keep my ego in check.  But, drawing on that long ago time, I have always thought that I should be able to take care of every problem.  This, I imagine, was my first training as a psychotherapist.

Next stop, 1960.  I am preparing to leave home for college.  I have a premonition that the family will fall apart when I leave.  There was no evidence, no concrete events, nothing whispered in my ears to support the feeling.  Even now, I can’t figure out why I was so upset that I got sick.  The doctor came to our house—yes, they still did in 1960—and gave me some medicine.  It would be thirty years before my mother told me that he had given me a placebo, a sugar pill.  It worked well enough for me to recover and to leave.  But, in fact, my family did deteriorate badly when I went off, and my sense of importance was confirmed.  No doubt, my feeling represented a child’s grandiosity, but it is through events like this that our relationship to the world is built.

A year later, as I approached Eliot House, my Harvard dorm, there was my father waiting for me.  He was unannounced and unexpected.  Without preamble, my father, normally a sober, contained, and soft-spoken man, his face distorted by pain, cried out that I needed to help him.  I needed to come home and to convince my mother, who had accused him of wrecking their marriage, that she was wrong.  He would never do such a thing.  She was being crazy, he said.  He seemed crazy to me.  I was upset but not as upset as you might imagine a nineteen year old to be.  For reasons I have never fully fathomed, it seemed natural that he—and my mother—would call on me to rescue their marriage. I left school that day and, for a week, scheduled talks with my mother, my father, their friends, my mother’s therapist—anyone who might help me understand the  family crisis.

I failed to help, though eventually the conflict was shunted to the side and their marriage continued.  But my failure did not persuade me that I shouldn’t have tried.  Nor did it even dent my sense of responsibility for things near and far.  In fact, the experience simply reinforced my need to take care of those I loved and, I think, to feel responsible for almost everybody.

Yet it has been the guidepost for much of my life.  I spent my entire career trying to help individuals, couples, families, organizations, and communities.  I still mentor many young people, thrilling to their development and worrying about their challenges.  There’s no denying: I have positioned myself in this world to be of help.  Success and failure in these endeavors has only been one measure of my participation.  I have tried very hard to actually and concretely help.  Looking back, I’d have to acknowledge that the pull to this responsibility has been stronger than any rational assessment of situations.

I know that I can’t do much, if anything, to save us from Donald Trump.  If he harms the environment, diminishes our health care, trashes the dignity of the American presidency, brings us to war, he’ll do so and I am helpless to stop him.  I despise that the end of my life may be filled with discouragement and alarm because of him.

In the spirit of knowledge, particularly self-knowledge, paving the way to freedom, I will bend every effort now to distance myself from his evil pull and from my own tendency to overreach.  I will pay less attention, read the newspapers and internet sites less, and initiate fewer political conversations.  I will try to turn away when faced with situations where I know that my efforts will be futile.  Maybe I’ll be able ignore that almost primordial impulse without feeling that I have betrayed my parents’ dream of a better world and for a son who will make that happen—maybe I can let go just enough to find some peace in my days.