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Last Saturday, I viewed the classic, 1959 film “Black Orpheus” on Netflix. I was only seven years old when the Oscar-winning film first premiered, but I clearly remember going to see it with my parents. The hypnotic drum-beats and the vivid images of colorful Carnaval costumes and vertiginous, breath-taking vistas from favelas high atop the mountains of Rio de Janeiro stayed with me across the decades, so that the film looked familiar on re-viewing. What I had forgotten were the specifics of how the movie brilliantly re-tells the bare-bones Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in that riotous samba setting.

First, it has to be acknowledged that the simplicity of the black characters, and the simple delight they take in Carnaval, have been identified as racist portrayals by no less an authority than President Obama, who mentions in “Dream of my Fathers” that “Black Orpheus” was his mother’s favorite movie. That said, though, in my view the characters’ simple outlines well serve the mythological context of the story. It is a stripped-down fairytale of love and death that is both a universal human myth, and a story that could be re-told in the context of almost any century or set of people. Director Marcel Camus’ decision to cast it as a tale of Rio’s Carnaval was a stroke of genius, and the imagery he generates to tell it is some of the most evocative that I have seen in any film.

Orpheus is portrayed as a tram conductor and Eurydice as a villager who has come to Rio by ferry to escape a vengeful lover who she fears will kill her. Where better to lose a pursuer than in the masked madness of Carnaval? Where this highly period and place-specific retelling really soars, though, is in the director’s decision to have Orpheus unintentionally kill Eurydice, just as he’s trying desperately to save her. This is an insightful variation of the original story, in which Eurydice is killed by snakes:   insightful specifically in that it highlights the power of anxiety and fear to cause people so often to harm or even accidentally kill the ones they love the most.

But it is the way the film contrasts the bright revelry and hypnotic beats of Carnaval, symbolizing the life force, with Eurydice’s journey into the underworld and Orpheus’ deep grief, that impressed me the most. After Eurydice is killed, her body is transported by ambulance through a deep, dark highway tunnel that I recognized from my 2009 visit to Rio de Janeiro as a tunnel I had ridden through in a taxi, deep under the Corcovado mountain. Orpheus follows her body to the “Office of Missing Persons” and the morgue, where a janitor tells him that he will find nothing in the building but dusty old files.

After he finds her body and her death is confirmed, he and the janitor descend a magnificent oval staircase that appears to burrow deep down into the earth (although the viewer recollects that Orpheus had previously taken an elevator up to the morgue.) Once they arrive at the lowest level, Orpheus is brought into a secret ritual of the Macumba Afro-Cuban religion, where men and women dance, whirl and speak in tongues. The janitor tells Orpheus to sing to Eurydice; when he finally does, he hears her voice answer him in response. Then, fatefully, Orpheus turns to see that the voice is emanating from an old lady who, in a trance, appears to be serving as a medium. As we all know, that backward glance separates Orpheus from Eurydice forever, within this life.

Leaving the church, Orpheus carries the inert body of Eurydice back up the steep hill to his favela. There in a jealous rage, Orpheus’ fiancé, Mira, flings a stone at Orpheus, sending him crashing over the cliff to his death, still bearing the body of Eurydice. It is abundantly clear that only in death could he and Eurydice be re-united.

What remains for all of us is the lament of the timeless and haunting Antonio Carlos Jobim song, “O Felicidade,” (“Happiness”) which Orpheus has sung to Eurydice on his guitar repeatedly throughout the film. His guitar is supposed to have the power to bring the sun up in the morning, on Ash Wednesday.

 

Recently, having attended a concert devoted to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim at Seattle’s Columbia City Theater, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, I posted about the transformative quality of his lovely bossa novas. Each simple and haunting tune nails itself into one’s head, where it cannot escape until you play another of his songs. These subtle melodies, married to the timeless lyrics of Vinicius de Moraes and others, have a wistful quality that evokes the inseparable intertwining of happiness and sadness in our lives. While the melodies seem quietly joyous, the lyrics speak longingly of the transient quality of happiness. The girl from Ipanema never sees you, and in the song “Corcovado,” “quiet chords from my guitar (are) floating on the silence that surrounds us.”

 

Nowhere is this more true than in the lyrics to “A Felicidade,” (“Happiness”):

 

Sadness never ends

Happiness does

 

Happiness is like a drop

of dew on a flower petal

It shines quietly

And then swings lightly

and falls like a love tear drop

 

This lyric, with its accompanying guitar melody, was enlisted as the theme song for the classic film, “Black Orpheus,” from 1959. Orpheus sings it almost as a lullaby to his beloved Eurydice, who is running away from death, in this brilliant re-telling of the Greek myth, set to the samba beats of Carnaval:

 

Happiness of the poor seems

The great illusion of Carnival

We work all year

For a dream moment

To make the fantasy

Of king or pirate or gardener

For everything is finished in (Ash) Wednesday

 

Here, in the metaphor of the lively night of Carnaval giving way to the cold dawn of Lent, we have the promise and fragility of romantic love contrasted with the stark certainty of death. Eurydice will die before the coming of dawn, unless Orpheus can save her. Ironically, in the movie he kills her by trying to save her from Death. She is hanging from an electric wire in a tram station, to which she has leapt after being cornered in the station by the Carnaval figure of death, in a skull mask. In an attempt to find her and save her, Orpheus turns the power on, instantly electrocuting her. Orpheus’ immediate and stabbing grief speaks to the universality of human suffering and the transient, elusive quality of happiness, themes which Buddhism addresses directly in its call for compassion for all sentient beings.

 

The lyrics to “A Felicidade” remind me so much of another poetic song with a Buddhist theme: “Everything Must Change; Nothing Stays the Same,” recorded by both George Benson and Randy Crawford. In both songs, the listener is brought back to the present moment by reflecting on the impermanence of all phenomena and beings. As the latter song reminds us, “There are not many things in Life you can be sure of/ Except rain comes from the clouds; sun lights up the sky; and hummingbirds do fly.”

 

 

 

 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have been confronting intense heartbreak over my aged father’s alarming behavior in the last nine months.  He has given away nearly $100,000 to criminal con artists in the hopes of winning a huge sweepstakes prize of $2.5 million.  Each time he sends the criminals a check, it turns out there is another bogus tax or insurance payment he has to pay to release the treasure.  If he was intentionally giving the money to a bona fide charity, how different it would be!  My feelings of heartbreak are not just about the loss of dad’s assets.  They center on my loss of the father I always had until now: a prudent, wise and even frugal man, and a dependable rock of stability in my life.

Pema Chodron teaches that when we confront a challenge that shakes us to our roots, we should be grateful for the opportunity it presents to soften from our hardness; to release our death grip on whatever we perceive as solid reality; and to awaken to the present moment, where actual Reality or Buddha Nature resides.  In “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times,” she tells the story of how her teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche, and his attendants were once confronted by a ferocious dog near the gates to a monastery.  She writes,

“Suddenly the chain broke and the dog rushed at them.  The attendants screamed and froze in terror.  Rinpoche turned and ran as fast as he could – straight at the dog.  The dog was so surprised that he put his tail between his legs and ran away.”

Running toward the danger – this is the behavior that all of us instinctively avoid, yet Pema Chodron teaches that it is not only the true antidote to our fears but also the genuine path to spiritual growth.  In the current movie, “The Life of Pi,” a small boy confronts a terrifying tiger on a small boat pitched in ocean waves until each learns to accommodate the other.  It is exactly the same teaching, and it corresponds to Gautauma’s mythical confrontations with “Mara,” the devil figure whom he ultimately conquered.

So how can I run toward my heartbreak over my father, rather than running away from it to seek hollow comfort in distraction?  In a word, I can use it as a lesson to help me come closer to attaining two fundamental spiritual treasures:  patience and unconditional love.  I have always been an extremely impatient person, and while I have loved, I would be lying if I said I have always loved unconditionally.  Dad is giving me the opportunity to learn how to be patient with him and to use my new-found patience to learn how to love him even at a time when I don’t like him very much.

Every day I pray for divine guidance; I pray for God to show me the next step on the path.  But there is a pre-condition for letting the Divine in:  we have to let ourselves get out of the way.   As my spiritual coach Jessica Maxwell puts it, when she describes the healing sessions she conducts, “I didn’t do anything, I just got out of the way.”   Learning to be patient and learning to love unconditionally mean learning to get out of  the way so God can guide us.  The goal is not just to uncover my own capacity for unconditional love; it is to accept God’s unconditional love.  This is a love that extends not only to me, but also to my father; a love that extends not only to my father, but also to me. We can only let it in if we stop using ourselves as a shield to block it.

Walking Mindfully

 

 

Walking mindfully one Sunday afternoon last fall led me to compose this poem:

 

A November Walk

 

When crows vocalize

In the late afternoon,

Golden poplar leaves

Dance against bare branches

And lawns turn bright emerald

Above the deep blue lake.

Only then, Autumn settles in

And makes way for Winter.

In my last post, “Recalibrating to the Right Brain,” I mentioned that for several months last year I felt an acute sense of heartbreak observing the deterioration of one small but critical part of my father’s mind.  At age 90, dad has lost the faculty to recognize the falsehood of claims by scammers that he had won 2.5 million dollars, if only he would pay them $75,000 in “taxes and insurance fees.”

Actually, I experienced all five stages of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief.  First there was denial:  ‘we can talk dad out of this absurd delusional thinking.’  Then came anger:  ‘what’s wrong with the bastard; he has the nerve to throw all his money away?!’  Then came bargaining:  ‘Dad, yes, I’ll sign to transfer money into your checking account, provided you use it to pay your actual bills.’  This was quickly followed by the heartache I mentioned.  I was rocked by strong feelings of depression over losing the dad I always knew I had, my father with sound judgment.  Finally and unexpectedly, I arrived at the fifth stage, acceptance:  ‘my dad has a brain problem brought on by ageing and it’s normal for elderly people to have some sort of compromised mental or physical abilities.’

Faced with a problem that causes you heartache, what does it take to reach the stage of acceptance?  In a word, it takes the ability to acquire a sense of detachment from the problem.  I experienced detachment briefly in early September, while I was still in the throes of the depression stage. It happened when my partner and I got away for four sun-soaked days with two dear friends on the Oregon coast.  God blessed us with perfect balmy weather every day, the sunsets were magnificent, and the evening revelry was delightful.  Driving down from Seattle for this mini-vacation, I kept thinking, “Oh my God, my father is giving all his money away to criminal con artists for bogus sweepstakes prizes!!!”  By the time we drove back, I had acquired a new perspective on the matter.  I thought to myself, “I know an elderly person whose mind has become vulnerable to financial fraud, and he just happens to be my father.  We’d better protect him from this misfortune.”  My pre-acceptance stage proved only to last a few days, but it laid much needed ground work, and I managed to circle back to it about three months later.

How do you achieve the detachment you need to reach Kubler-Ross’ acceptance stage?  The answer is both very simple and very difficult:  you have to let your ego get out of the way.  My ego was dramatizing the situation to the max.  Every time I thought about the situation, I imagined my father in the gutter and I pictured myself losing my inheritance.  “Woe is me, all is lost,” I kept repeating to myself.  Somehow I completely forgot that this had nothing to do with me and everything to do with my father.

Detachment is one of the most significant concepts in Eastern religion and philosophy.  At the same time, it is one of the most difficult for Westerners to understand and accept.  It seems to us that detachment goes against the principle of compassion to the point of being anti-life.  It seems to be a doctrine dictating that we must not allow ourselves to love our family members and friends; that we must distance ourselves from them as much as possible.  In a way, this understanding is exactly correct:  after all, Siddhartha did walk away from his beloved wife and children and renounce them in order to become Buddha.  Similarly, in India, many vagabond beggars stray away from social entanglements to avoid becoming attached to anyone.

But in a more modern sense, detachment can mean learning to conduct one’s life effectively by not allowing one’s ego to sabotage right action.  Buddhist monks, nuns and great Buddhist leaders like Thich Nhat Hanh and Pema Chodron show us a way to be compassionate to others without obsessing over the bonds that attach us to them, whether they are bonds of family, business or friendship.  Which of my own perceptions about my dad was the most compassionate:  the anxiety-ridden emotion, “Oh my God, he’s giving all his money away!” or the more detached awareness, “I know an elderly person who has been scammed.  He is my father and I need to help him.”  An attitude of detachment can actually promote compassion, whereas an over-wrought emotional entanglement can lead to attacking the other person, which is the opposite of compassion.

In Chapter 6 of Joseph Campbell’s book, “Myths to Live By,” there is a wonderful passage that describes how acquiring a sense of detachment can be analogous to conscious role-playing, where one learns to play the role of father or son or any other human part, without forgetting that the role is simply a necessary tool of action and not a fundamental or permanent attribute of your soul:

“There is a curious, extremely interesting term in Japanese that refers to a very special manner of polite, aristocratic speech known as ‘play language,’ asobase kotoba, whereby, instead of saying to a person, for example, ‘I see that you have come to Tokyo,’ one would express the observation by saying, ‘I see that you are playing at being in Tokyo’ – the idea being that the person addressed is in such control of his life and his powers that for him everything is a play, a game.  He is able to enter into life as one would enter into a game, freely and with ease.  And this idea is carried even so far that instead of saying to a person, ‘I hear that your father has died,’ you would say, rather, ‘I hear that your father has played at dying.’  And now, I submit that this is truly a noble, really glorious way to approach life.  What has to be done is attacked with such a will that in the performance one is literally ‘in play.’”

This is how acquiring a sense of detachment can help us in modern life:  if we can let our ego get out of the way, we can more clearly see the role we need to play to effect compassionate action. In a game of tennis, the ego or the brain never hits the ball over the net; the racquet in the hand on the arm in the shoulder socket always does.

IMAG0113

Walking the beach at Oceanside, Oregon helped me find a sense of detachment.

It’s been a long time since my last post on “Bird of Spirit,” my on-line spiritual journal.  In the past year I’ve experienced something more than writer’s block:  something more like heartache, having lost my 88 year-old mother on July 9 and my partner’s mother on October 19, 2012.  Both of them suffered a lot in their last months and years, their bodies and minds rebelling against them in steady, undignified and irrevocable deterioration.   Hardest of all, I witnessed my father falling into a highly focussed form of delusional thinking, which has led him to give away most of his assets to an elder fraud sweepstakes scam.  In short, 2012 was a very difficult year for me, and the wings of my spirit were severely clipped.  It was definitely time to recalibrate, so I arranged for an energy healing session earlier this month with a real spiritual warrior, Jessica Maxwell, author of “Roll Around Heaven,” who has generously become my de facto guru.

But what actually needed recalibration?  Jessica saw clearly that my left brain was over-activated and my right brain suppressed.  We now know from many sources, including Jill Bolte Taylor’s astonishing work, “My Stroke of Insight,” that when neural activity in the left hemisphere of the brain is suppressed, as it was with Taylor’s stroke, one’s consciousness is suddenly free to experience God’s eternal and infinite bliss and peace.  This is what the Hindus call “samadhi,” or God-union, and the Buddhists call “bliss consciousness.”   Christians simply call it “grace.”

Guiding me by drawing the infinity symbol in the air with her finger, Jessica encouraged me to allow my consciousness to flow into my right hemisphere.  I could actually feel a pulling sensation on the right side of my head, like the force of a magnet.  In a spiritually democratic, equal-opportunity, East-meets-West form of worship, we lit candles and invoked the spirits of Yogananda, Lama Karma (Oregon’s own Tibetan Buddhist monk), Amma, and Mary Magdalene.  Three hours or so later, I could feel my heartache slipping away, and my meditation practice has improved ever since.

Why does recalibration work?  It works because we are creatures in this world but not of it.  The neurons of the left brain are like the strings the Lilliputians used to tie poor Gulliver’s body to the earth.  An even better analogy is to a balloon tied down awaiting its next flight:  we are the passengers caught in the basket between the soaring dome of our right brain above and the anchoring cords of our left below.  One half of our mind is in heaven; the other half refuses to see it or admit it.

When I went to see Jessica, the first thing I told her was that I felt like I was a lotus plant that had not bloomed in a very long time.  The lotus is honored in both Hindu and Buddhist mythology not only for its beautiful, floating flower but for the mucky roots anchoring it to the lake bed.  My roots were definitely anchored in the muck, but my head was not above water.  Now I feel like I’m ready to bloom again.

But why do we so often or always forget to stop and recalibrate?  We are like walking lotus plants, always trekking through the muck of life, with our heads only barely above the water line.  We forget to recalibrate because most of the time we’re unaware that our right brain is even there.  If we were not tied to the earth, we could not survive; we would forget to feed ourselves.  More significantly, all the earthly rewards we could possibly want to reap are linked to the care and feeding of our left brains, those problem-solving machines.  Reasoning is rewarded by society; blissful feelings are not.  Who are highly paid lawyers, doctors and scientists if not persons whose left brains have been carefully nurtured, fed and trained?

The more time you spend reasoning to solve problems, seeking that higher earthly paycheck of money, fame or recognition, the more you forget to recognize and honor the part of your brain that connects you to heaven.  Let’s just say I spent all of 2012 trying as hard as I could to solve problems.  We always forget that after one or two hours spent in the light of our right-brains, away from thoughts, the solution will simply present itself.  Visiting the right brain is like oiling the machine: the Light becomes a light-bulb.  A machine that is not oiled regularly always cracks and breaks.

 

 

In our globalized world, uniting the essences of Eastern and Western philosophy is probably the most crucial step in attaining a modern and well-harmonized spiritual outlook on life.  In “Myths to Live By,” a book of essays delivered between 1958 and 1971,  the eminent scholar of mythology,  Joseph Campbell, makes two broad and crucial points about the dramatic differences between East and West in culture, society, religion and even art. 

 

His first point is that beginning with Greek civilization, Western society has been built on recognizing and honoring the human individual, involving the core belief that individual differences in personality are to be valued for the unique contributions they bring to human culture and learning. This validation of the individual has in turn led to the foundation of the sciences and to all of the breakthroughs we associate with real progress, which Campbell argues are to be attributed solely and exclusively to Western civilization.  By contrast, Eastern society, both in India and the Far East, finds no role for the individual except to perform the pre-defined social functions into which he has been born by caste or tradition.  Perfection of a pre-determined, more-or-less eternal social role is the goal of the individual in Eastern societies, not innovation.  Confucianism more or less provides a rule-book for the social roles of the individual within the family and society.  The more mystically oriented Yoga and the more naturally oriented disciplines of Buddhism and Taoism emphasize transcendence of the individual self within God, Buddha-nature and the Way of nature respectively.

 

Campbell’s second point is about the different Eastern and Western conceptualizations of God.  Since Westerners validate the individual, it is only to be expected that we view God as another individual; that is to say as the Other, as an outer Power with which we strive to form a personal relationship.  In the United States, many newer evangelical congregations have taken this idea of a relationship with God to its logical extreme, encouraging people to sit down, have coffee with God and have a chat with Him, as if God were the ultimate psychiatrist, best-friend and parent all wrapped into one big  package of unconditional love.  By contrast, Easterners believe that to find God we must look inside; that God is an inner Divine principle, and not a separate Other.  This much I knew before reading Campbell’s essays, but it was only after I read what he has to say about the lack of value of the individual self in Eastern culture, that I understood fully the Eastern conviction that our perception of ourselves as selves blocks our spiritual evolution by concealing the inner Divine.  Only by dissolving the self, that is to say the ego, can we find the God who is already within. 

 

Campbell then goes on to make a subtle third point about the different definitions of ego in Eastern and Western culture, a point which further elucidates why the West values the individual and the East does not.  Following Freud, Western culture defines the ego as a sort of traffic cop ruling over the desire-seeking id and the conscience-driven superego.  Like a judge in court, as events unfold and decisions are to be made, the ego constantly evaluates the evidence and rules in favor either of the id or the superego in an ever-unfolding sequence. Western culture thus encourages the development of the ego as the foundation of the mature, fully developed individual, who is then completely prepared to make his key and unique contribution to society.  Eastern society, on the other hand, draws no distinction between id, ego and superego.  All three wrapped together are merely ego, and it is the ego that is to be dissolved or destroyed, not its warring factions.  If the purpose of the individual is to perform his social role as perfectly as possible, not to evaluate stimuli and arrive at a new or innovative pattern of response, then the ego is of no more use to him than its two component factions.

 

What can we learn from these two extremely different world views as we strive to unite the concepts of East and West to form a new, more globally based form of spirituality?  We can learn to synthesize.  We can conclude that freedom is important because the individual is of key value to society, but also that the mature ego is not the entire being or worth of the individual.  The ego’s choices between the superego’s agenda and the id’s demands are not infallible and the ego itself, that is the traffic cop, can get wildly out of control, resulting in the individual becoming hugely destructive to society, rather than contributive.  We can conclude that our ego needs to be calmed by calling upon the Divine who resides within.  We can further conclude that we are not separate from God, but that at the same time it is legitimate to perceive ourselves as individuals with something  new and different  to contribute to society.  As such individuals, we can have a relationship with God even as we know and feel that He resides within.  Our deeply practical national forefather, Benjamin Franklin, knew as much.