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 “So you’ve seen dwarfs rip open their bellies and show you their insides, you’ve been a television switched off without warning, you’ve experienced the whole world as one Krishna consciousness, free of individual ego, floating through the infinite cosmos of the soul? Big fucking deal. That’s all bullshit next to St. John’s trip when Christ laid the twenty-two chapters of Revelation on him. It must have been a hell of a shock for the apostle (after that thorough spin-job, the New Testament, all those sweet words and sublime sentiments) to discover Old Testament vengeance lurking around the corner after all. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. That must have been some eye-opener. …Revelation is where all crazy people end up. It’s the last stop on the nutso express.”

-Zadie Smith, from “White Teeth,” Chapter 15

 Evidently, if you want to call yourself a Christian, you must accept all of Revelation along with all the Gospels. But what are you if you can willingly or even enthusiastically accept the Gospels, but you unequivocally reject the End Times and the Judgment Day of the Book of Revelation? A non-Christian, a less-than Christian, or a faithful believer in the teachings of Jesus Christ?

“White Teeth,” Zadie Smith’s sweeping and masterly novel, is a sharply comic analysis of modern London society; a Dickens tale for the new millennium. Like two strands of interconnected DNA, Smith weaves the twin grand themes of the immigration of people of color from the Indian subcontinent and Jamaica and the impact of religious fundamentalism on this new, multi-racial society.

What Smith discovered and portrays with surgical precision is that the fundamental nature of fundamentalism is nothing other than monomania. She proves this by not only presenting us with a Jehovah’s Witness grandma from the West Indies and a Muslim extremist youth from Bangladesh, but also with a presumably atheist scientist whose sole passion is the genetic mutation of mice and his rebellious son, an animal right’s activist, who is out to destroy his father’s “future mouse.” All four characters’ brains have been washed by a different form of fundamentalist zeal, but the core affliction they all suffer from is monomania. None of them is able to function normally in the world because their minds and their judgment have been clouded by their various and contradictory forms of fundamentalist monomania:

• Jamaican grandmother Hortense Bowden has spent her entire life predicting and preparing for the last day on Earth, which is repeatedly revealed by the Jehovah’s Witness elders, all male. When the world lives on after the meticulously predicted date of its destruction, Hortense unquestioningly follows the elders in their conclusion that they had simply not interpreted Scripture correctly. A new date is rapidly inserted as a replacement, as we have just seen in the past week, when predictions that the world would come to an end on May 21, 2011 were definitively proven wrong.

• A sexy magnet to all women and girls, Bangladeshi Muslim youth Millat Iqbal throws off his many girlfriends and joins a proto-terrorist gang of Islamists because of his secret passion to act the role of a Mafia godfather. Re-educating himself, Millat strains to learn the precise and intricate physical poses required for proper Muslim prayer; the only positions that will not offend Allah.

• Geneticist Marcus Chalfen ignores everybody and everything in his quest to breed a mouse that will inevitably acquire the symptoms of cancer in an exact, pre-determined sequence. Scientific predictability becomes his monomaniacal vision, a stand-in for the God of religion.

• Chalfen’s son Joshua, horrified by the torture his father inflicts on his strains of mice, joins a radical animal right’s group, and conspires with them to destroy his father, by murder if necessary. Fear of a science-fiction future, coupled with an ostensible concern for the humane treatment of animals, leads him to the form of fundamentalist monomania that says, “God never intended animals to be hybridized or experimented upon.”

• A fifth character, Irie, suffers from a monomaniacal love passion for Millat, but this characteristic is tempered by her basic reason and her interest in her Jamaican “root canals”: there is hope for Irie.

When the four deluded characters race to confront each other in the dramatic denouement of the novel, it is reminiscent of the movie “Crash.” Zadie Smith deftly shows how their four radically different forms of monomania, clashing and battling with one another, escalate into a societal insanity that keeps humanity from living simply, effectively and peaceably. The unintentional heroes of the novel, unintentional because they never set out to be heroes, are the hapless Anglo, Archie, and his multi-racial daughter Irie, who do not have it in their characters to set reason aside in favor of monomaniacal fervor. Hampered as they are by a crushing indecisiveness (Archie) and a lack of moral conviction (Irie) that makes them appear weak, their very lack of direction is revealed to be an underhanded form of strength – an inadvertent open-mindedness that has protected them from falling victim to a misguided form of monomania. They did not set out to be open-minded or consciously intend to be open-minded; they simply were born with open-mindedness in their DNA.

The terrible thing about monomania, as Smith so articulately demonstrates, is that it prevents its victims from living mindfully; from being truly present. They are all slaves to their compulsions, regardless of whether the obsession takes the form of end-of-world fantasy, strict Muslim correctness, scientific triumph,or fear of scientific determinism. The truly debilitating trait of Smith’s characters is that they so immediately and automatically bounce back into their various monomanias, even when the mania’s underpinnings are revealed to be baseless, such as when the world fails to end on a predicted date.

True mindfulness, true presence is the opposite of monomania, and therefore the opposite of fundamentalist fervor. As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in Chapter 10 of “Living Buddha, Living Christ,”

“For genuine awakening to be possible, we must let go of notions and concepts about nirvana, and about God. We must let go not just of our notions and concepts about the ultimate but also of our notions and concepts about things in the phenomenal realm. ….Our notions and concepts are the result of wrong perceptions. That is why, in order to have direct access to their reality, we have to abandon all of our wrong perceptions.” “

 

As a corollary to valuing friendship so strongly, Bill Talley stood for a more personal world. What exactly do I mean by that? I mean that Bill was born into the highly personable, small-town world of Columbus, Georgia, and he saw no reason to relate any differently to the more complex society of a big city. Where some people may move to New York to take refuge in its anonymity, Bill brought a personal ambiance with him, wherever he went. He managed to screen out the gossipy, back-biting resentfulness of small-town life while preserving and spreading its highly personal relationships, its sense of neighbor helping neighbor.

When Bill moved to Seattle in 1960, it was still a small town, albeit a town steeped more in Nordic myths than Southern folklore. Without fighting growth and change, Bill meant to keep it that way. He never fought against anything, including his cancer; instead, he stood for something: health as opposed to illness; and personal connection in lieu of anonymity. Today’s Seattle is not a small town, nor is it a big city, but it is certainly growing away from small-town ways, toward an international culture of electronic interconnection, where the pleasure of casual, face-to-face social interaction is disappearing as rapidly as anywhere else. For example, I have watched the QFC supermarket cashiers being replaced by machines. If Bill experienced this deterioration of the personal element in society, he never mentioned it, because reinforcing the personal principle is what he simply always did, and did so simply! People ache for a return to a more personal world, where Jack is Jack and Jane is Jane, but you know their surnames and their families as well. They are still Jack and Jane from next door, not Jack with ATT in Indiana between 4:00 PM and midnight on alternate Wednesdays or Janimpura in Bangalore on Monday mornings.

So it was that Bill created a little society, a little civilization, around him, wherever he went. After summering on Cape Cod for two or three years in a row, virtually the entire community were his “new friends,” and he invited all of them in for lunch.

I can give a vivid example of this from my own life. Speaking of neighbor helping neighbor, in 1994 Bill and Judy went so far as to find me my first apartment in Seattle, at the Edgewater, while I was still wrapping up my affairs in California. When the apartment manager, a stern Scottish lady, asked Bill who this Brooks Kolb was – a Brooks Kolb who was conspicuous by his absence, and with no identification – Bill quickly replied, “You don’t know the Kolbs of Laurelhurst?” with a faux astonishment so convincing that the flustered lady quickly signed me in. It was as if my family fell just short of nobility.

This is what I call the “Bill Principle,” the conviction, which he never stated overtly, that Seattle (or Planet Earth) was a small town where everybody knew everybody, just like Columbus, Georgia, which gave Bill the charming Southern accent he could turn on and off at will. If you ever went out to lunch with Bill and saw the hordes of people he greeted individually and personally no matter where you were parking, walking or dining, it became abundantly clear that at least Bill’s Seattle was still a small town. Eyes gazing around him, Bill could work a room like nobody else except that other Bill, President Clinton, but you never felt ignored while he was doing it.

It should be clear by now that Bill was a very giving person. He gave freely of himself to everybody he valued, and quite a few he didn’t, and he made it look easy and natural. His “mentees” and protégés were numerous. While he appeared to indulge himself with the epicurean meals and wine that he and Judy prepared and served, it was really all of us guests and friends who were indulged. While on that subject, it must be said that Bill and Judy gave the best parties ever; they were “non-pareil.” The food and wine flowed, but the conversation and conviviality were the best part, reinforced by the fact that Bill’s friends had all been secretly vetted by his unerring judgment of character. We had all been chosen, I’m sure, for our own ability to pitch in at a social engagement, to participate; to have fun.

Bill’s sense of fun and humor was legendary. Serious but humorous by day, he took on the spirit of Dionysus at night. Entertaining guests on his lovely porch in Madison Park (another concession to Southern hospitality, of course,) he loved to elicit momentary shock, followed with a wave of laughter, by tossing empty bottles of wine over the railing and into the front garden that he had so meticulously but artlessly designed. Bill was the embodiment of hospitality, and he loved nothing more than to cook and entertain. Aha! Is there any wonder why he first studied hotel management at Cornell before opting for landscape architecture at the Rhode Island School of Design?

Bill was an extremely well-rounded, dedicated, accomplished and respected landscape architect. The University of Washington campus was his domain and he did his best to make it a lovely and enduring landscape and urban forest. He was also a humble person: he insisted on writing his own obituary, leaving out almost any mention of his significant accomplishments. He carefully prepared his family and friends in advance for his passing, over a period of months, leaving detailed instructions about his memorial service. Amazingly enough, he entertained guests on the very evening before his death. I was fortunate enough to speak to him on the phone that night, and I had no premonition that the end was so near. We spoke of Kauai, from which I had just returned and which Bill had visited the previous year, and we spoke of my family and his. It was a typical, wonderful conversation with Bill.

One thing Bill told me once really stayed with me. He said, “If anyone graces you with so much as fifteen minutes of their time” to discuss a personal or professional problem or quandary, “send them a thank-you note.” He certainly lived up to this principle, for many are the delightful thank you –notes and postcards I received from Bill and Judy over the years. Bill shared with me the belief that we are here on planet Earth only for a short visit. That doesn’t make our time here unimportant: you could call it an important visit.

Bill Talley came into the world with class and he went out with class. Doubtless, he is now in heaven chatting with his “new friend,” Elizabeth Taylor, who had the nerve to die the same week. Yes, it took someone of her stature to upstage him on the obituary page. I can just hear him saying to her, in his intimate and congenial tone, “Now Liz, why exactly did you have so many husbands, bless your heart?”

 (Note to readers:  why does a remembrance of a landscape architect, Bill Talley, appear in this blog about spirituality?  Answer:  Because he was a spiritual person, naturally!)

I have been fortunate enough to have had three wonderful mentors in my life – Paul Korshin, Bob Hanna and Bill Talley.  In earlier years I wrote remembrances of the first two and now, sadly, I am called upon to write a remembrance of Bill.  But Bill was the real mentor I always unconsciously but deliberately imagined and sought; it’s just that I expected to encounter him or one like him so much earlier in my career!

Where can I begin?  Shall I begin by saying that although he was eighteen years my senior, he was in many ways my best friend?  Shall I begin by saying that Bill had a great gift of friendship – that he made friends easily and cultivated each one individually?  That when you were in his presence one to one, you felt that you were his very best friend and confidant?  That many, many of his friends felt the same way, yet without any envy or jealousy toward one another?  That when Bill was talking to another friend and you approached the twosome, he always paused to welcome you into the conversation?  There was never, never that awkwardness that so often happens when you approach two huddled people; that waiting to be noticed and brought into their sphere.  Nor did Bill ever forget to introduce me to his comrades, and me to them.  I believe that Bill valued friendship (and doubtless family) above all other values in a world where only a few blessed people place friendship on such a high pedestal.

I never felt awkward or embarrassed around Bill, even when he criticized me, and his criticisms were always right-on.  He had a brilliant way of guiding people, rather than judging them.  He would unobtrusively create a comradely intimate space around an issue he perceived in your personality or behavior or way of dressing, so that you sort of entered a little conspiracy with him to solve the problem or offending behavior.  Only later, on reflection, would you realize that he had been criticizing you in his way.  I know, because being nearly broke in 1994 when I first came to work with Bill, I wore an old pair of ill-fitting polyester pants on more than one occasion.

Of course my friendship with Bill grew over the seventeen years I knew him, from summer 1994, when I first interviewed to work in his landscape architecture firm, until March 22, 2011, when he suddenly died of complications from lung cancer.  Still, I can’t say that there was a moment before we were friends.  We instantly fell “in like,” the first minute I spoke to him over beers at what was then the Leschi Lake Café, next to his office.  This, before I learned that wine was his drink of choice:  he instantly agreed to share beers with me and his then-partner, Scott Pascoe.  Our friendship never wavered or fizzled, from that moment onwards.

Bill was a great mentor.  He taught me nearly everything I know about planting design and quite a lot I know about landscape architecture generally, but more importantly, he taught me nearly everything I know about how best to interact with clients.  How to be always positive and put the best foot forward, even in awkward moments.  Bill was a genius at deferring and resolving conflicts, always with a great reserve of good humor. 

Bill was an iron fist in a velvet glove.  For the first few months that I worked for him, I only saw the velvet glove; the great, plentiful and playful sense of humor.  Again, it was a conspiracy on Bill’s part:  a conspiracy to share with others any opportunity for fun and for joy; and the opportunities were plentiful and unending.  Then, one day in the summer or fall of 1995, I saw the iron fist come out of the glove, when Bill went head-to-head with a stubborn and recalcitrant, low-bid contractor on a landscape renovation project we were doing forUniversityofWashington’s south campus.  Bill got up in the guy’s face and yelled at him, which he deserved.  Bill’s friend and colleague, Jon Hooper, head of the UW’s facility services, was growling and menacing with his fists from the sidelines.  It was a clear case of bad cop, bad cop!  Bill’s iron fist was like a sword sheathed:  it only came out the velvet scabbard when it absolutely had to.

Bill was the best judge of character I have ever met.  His first impressions of people almost never failed him.  He could tell within the first five minutes of meeting someone whether they were good, bad, “trouble” (as in his friendly greeting, “Here’s trouble!”) or a royal pain in the ass.  His predictions about people, whether they would turn out to be helpful, useless, or merely neurotic or grandiose, were unerring.  If someone hammered away about one subject all the time, angrily or merely doggedly, Bill would throw up his hands and refer to them as “relentless.” 

His ability to know when to show up at a social event and when to leave was likewise unerring.  Coupled to his judge of character, it lit the clearest path ahead like a laser beam.  This was made clear to me when once I accompanied him and his wife Judy to a fancy birthday party thrown by and for one of our clients.  After the catered dinner in a downtown ballroom, the client rose to a lecturn and began to speak.  Bill immediately tapped at his watch and stage-whispered, “time to go.”  Judy and I both objected, saying, “let’s hear what she has to say.”  Bill relented against his better judgment, but an ‘I told you so’ moment soon followed, as the party quickly morphed into a fundraiser for a cause we were not 100% committed to supporting.  Pay we did, however, because we stayed.  It was not that Bill was stingy, only that he objected to the sense of being manipulated.  Nor did he actually say, “I told you so.”  That would have been too judgmental.  Instead, he took Judy and me into his conspiratorial intimate space and merely said, “I knew she was going to do that, bless her heart.”

Everyone Bill met was “my new friend John Doe.”  This applied equally to actual new friends, cashiers, annoying bureaucrats and enemies alike.  Always any person was “my new friend” until he metamorphosed into such a rude or thoughtless adversary that the velvet glove would have to come off.  Even then, Bill would say something like, “I will have to have a come-to-Jesus moment with my new friend John Doe.”

What I most loved about Bill was his great ability to talk intelligently and informally about any subject at any time, fluently slipping back and forth between topics, and never lecturing.  We could be talking about one of our projects or a professional point about landscape architecture; slip into discussing our families or personal lives, then move on to chatting about cooking or the books we were reading; our philosophical viewpoints; places we loved visiting or wanted to travel to, and places to avoid (Bill had a dread of third-world countries with dirty open-palmed entreating orphans); and then back again to landscape architecture, all within the space of a few minutes.  I loved this conversational fluency of Bill’s all the more because that was exactly how I had always liked best to converse, yet in my working life at least, most of my bosses wanted to stick safely to one topic only:  landscape architecture and its most closely related feeder subjects. Plus, hold that thought, because another thing I liked so much about Bill was that he was never my boss.  Oh yes, I worked for him in the beginning and he paid me, but he was always a colleague first and a supervisor a distant second.  This was not true of anyone else I had ever worked for, including my second mentor, Bob Hanna.

Bill made it fairly clear from the start that if I didn’t mess up badly (this “if” being more in my own mind than in his verbal presentation of the issue,)  we could become partners, and he generously forgave me several early-on big bloopers that I endlessly attacked myself over. There was the time I designed a series of wood gates too heavy, so that they nearly fell off their hinges; the time I inadvertently caused the incident that resulted in the afore-mentioned bad cop/bad cop contractor face-off, and the time I left a roll of presentation drawings on a Kenmore sea-plane atFridayHarborprior to a meeting.  Bill’s response to all three incidents was “don’t worry;” in fact, he said “don’t worry” about nearly every problem our firm faced, from poor cash-flow to disgruntled clients. He never again even mentioned the embarrassing incidents.

Once you were in with Bill, you were in.  He seemed unusually willing to experiment with professional partnerships, to take risks with people he had observed and approved of, to a degree beyond anyone else I had ever worked with.  The string of Bill Talley partnerships, some more successful than others, stretched from 1960 all the way up until 2004, when he retired from our own firm.  I’m not saying I didn’t deserve the honor of becoming his partner, only that Bill made the path to partnership so easy and direct:  four or five easy steps instead of eight or ten hurdles to jump.

Stay tuned for Part 2

Diverse and sundry masters all agree that the key to spiritual growth is “being present,” or “being mindful,” as the Buddhists call it. Teachers from Thich Nhat Hanh to Eckhart Tolle agree on this point. But what does “being present” really mean? Clearly, there’s an art to it, and it must be practiced. Being mindful is the opposite of multi-tasking, of driving while texting, and as such it goes against the hectic grain of modern life. The practice is the art of temporarily forgetting one’s future and one’s past, so that we can “remember” the present moment. If we can only put modern life aside for this moment, we will discover the beauty and the truth of the “now,” as Tolle calls it. Many masters have also noted that the future is uncertain and the past is wrapped in the gauzy film of unreliable memory: the present moment is all we are truly, literally given.

So there is an art to it; an art to being mindful or putting yourself front and center in the heart of the present, moment by moment. Meditation is a key aid in this. Another aid is music. Like meditation, a piece of music that speaks to us allows us to concentrate; it makes us concentrate, and when we give something all of our attention, without mental interruption, that is what is meant by “being mindful.” When you listen attentively to a piece of music that you love, or better still when you sing it or play it – when you give all your concentration to its subtle phrasing, its melodic line and under-pinning beat, its transitions from one musical riff to another, then you are being mindful. Is it any wonder that neuro-scientists like Oliver Sacks have discovered music’s power to alter the cellular structure of the human brain for the better?

Obviously, being mindful means being in the present moment, or one could say mindful to the present moment. But how do we define what we mean by “present?” One is both ‘present:’ here in flesh, ‘present and accounted for,’ and anchored in the present moment: not distracted by events of the future or the past, no matter how near in the future or far in the past. The example of attentiveness to music teaches us something profound about what the present moment really means. It is the unadulterated ‘now,’ but it is also the bridge between an immediate past and an immediate future. We could not appreciate the melodic line of a piece of music if our brains could not seamlessly splice together the present note or chord with at least a few of the preceding notes and a few notes to follow. The brain comprehends the arc of the musical phrase only by remembering the pattern of preceding notes and anticipating the future ones. In fact, one of the great pleasures of music lies in memorizing this arc as a song moves from stanza into the chorus. When we hum or whistle a “catchy tune,” it is because our brains have memorized a melodic arc. Keener still are the pleasures to be found in contemplating the subtle variations that great musicians insert into choruses when the listener is expecting no variation at all. This is the very best of improvisation.

The whole arc of a musical phrase is more than the literal present: it is the perceived present, or one might say the higher present, which seamlessly knits together the immediate past and future. Just as each of us has a higher self, each moment records a higher present. Small wonder that musical transitions in songs are called “bridges.”

In similar fashion, we are able to follow the story-telling arc of a motion picture only by mentally knitting together past and future frames into a recognizable pattern of present motion. Precisely how many instants or ‘beats’ of memory and pre-cognition are required of the human brain to appreciate a musical line or follow a story line? There must be material for a hundred PhD’s in that question.

The other night, visiting my elderly parents, I experienced what I think it really means to be present and mindful. As I was helping my mother into bed, a smile of quiet, loving recognition passed between us. In that moment, the scales dropped from my eyes and suddenly I was acutely aware of the absurdity of our roles as mother and son. I recognized that here was a dear friend with whom I had undoubtedly shared many lifetimes. Today we were (are) a mother and son, but I was quite sure that we had been brother and sister in another life and, who knows, maybe lovers in yet another. Most likely I had parented her in still another life, and who is to say whether I was the father or the mother? It really didn’t matter. What mattered was that we were and are soul-mates, two beings supporting and knowing each other across the millennia. Nor was this impression simply oedipal, because I felt the same kind of kinship with my father. The roles we take on, mother and son or father and son, help us toward our spiritual growth in this lifetime, but to really know and honor one another means discarding our roles, casting them aside. That kind of transcendence, recorded and described in the psychic past-life readings of Edgar Cayce, is what it truly means to be mindful.

 Now that the internet has come to affect how all of us live, we have become accustomed to thinking of all human information exchange as one hyper-connected world-wide web.

On-line search engines like Google and Bing function like an extension of the neurons firing in our brains when we ask them questions in the form of key words that instantaneously connect us to the corresponding answers.  The entire web is like a cat’s cradle of connectivity, or as I often visualize it, like the flight pattern maps that one gazes at in airline magazines.  A web of information and connectivity is a good description of civilization itself, for what is a civilization if not a pattern of organized social connections that is protected militarily from outside attack or disintegration? 

But there is not just a single world-wide web, shared by all people.  Actually, each person is the center of a web of social interaction that is as much an expression of his or her particular identity as his or her fingerprint.  When I invite friends or loved ones to a party or celebration, I am asserting the identity and unique composition of my very own web of civilization.  I am like a stone skipping on a pond, with the ripples of my social interactions extending outwards from my immediate family and best friends to the wider orbit of my casual acquaintance.  Each of us creates our own unique civilization with this personal web or network.  Thus it is that when a person dies, a unique civilization dies with him.  The people in the dead man’s network remain alive, of course, but never again will they be connected in the same exact pattern.  Of course, the spouse, brother, sister or best friend of the deceased may have a roughly similar range of acquaintance, but it will not be identical.  Even if it were composed of exactly the same list of people, the differing emotional ties of the dead man and the survivor will be sufficient to amount to a different pattern. Perhaps only the internet has allowed us to realize this truth fully. That is why we all have our own Facebook pages!

I was thinking about this because just this week a man died who was my mentor and in some ways my soul-mate.  Bill Talley was a wonderful man, beloved and befriended by many, many people who generally shared his kindliness, sharp and compassionate psychological insight, sense of humor and most of all, his love of social celebration.  Bill’s network of friends, family and loved ones amounts to a civilization that continued to rise as he flourished and that now will inevitably fall in decline because he is gone. 

The purpose of a memorial service is to validate an individual by validating his personal world-wide web, his unique civilization, simply by gathering the group together one more time.  People are meant to acknowledge and toast that specific group even as they celebrate the life of the deceased one who has brought them together.  After the memorial is over, rare indeed are the instances when that particular group can manage to plan and hold a future reunion.  Even if the reunion were successfully scheduled and attended, the civilization would no longer truly exist due to its missing leader, its director, its centerpiece.  We are all like suns and our network of friends and loved ones is like a solar system of planets revolving around us.  All of our overlapping civilizations, each one centered around a single person, are like parallel universes.  Each one is its own particular web of life, a unique world-wide web.

 

The Hinduism so beautifully personified by Paramahansa Yogananda in “Autobiography of a Yogi” is full of devotion to a God who is inside and outside us all at once.  In fact, Yogananda describes himself as being devotional by nature, ever since his childhood: devotion being one of Hinduism’s three basic paths to God.  Of course Hinduism stresses that we must each look inwards to find understanding.  We all have a Higher Self, and gazing inwards to find this Higher Self is the key to finding God.  Blissful union with God is called “samadhi” in the yogic tradition.

At first glance, Buddhism appears very similar to a Westerner.  One gazes inward in meditation to uncover the dharma, or right path.  Many of the basic terms of Buddhism, such as karma and dharma, come straight from Hinduism.  After all, the Buddha arose in a Hindu culture just as Jesus was born into Judaism.  Nirvana, the blissful state to which the Buddha ultimately awakened, is essentially akin to samadhi.  Compassion is a key ingredient in the teachings of both religions, and indeed of Christianity as well.

But there is an important respect with which Buddhism differs from Hinduism.  Buddhists generally don’t speak of God at all.  Whereas the Hindu God is manifested in so many different forms, such as Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma, in Buddhism there is nothing at all to manifest.  This is not to say that Buddhism is atheist, but neither is it theist.  One might say that while Hinduism celebrates union with the Divine Presence, Buddhists seek awakening to the (divine) Absence.  To Hindus, God is the Oneness that encompasses, enfolds and transcends all the spiritual and worldly forms of Being.  To Buddhists, a divine Nothingness is the core Reality into which all worldly forms dissolve.  What Hindus call God, Buddhists simply call Mindfulness, and it is to be found entirely within.

Mindfulness is the opposite of multi-tasking.  Mindfulness is an open, vibrating, still and peaceful awareness of ourselves, the world around us, our thoughts and our actions.  Multi-tasking breaks up and fractures the screen of mindfulness into thousands of tiny fragments, like shattering a sheet of glass into myriads of sharp, blood-drawing crystals.  It is unfortunate and at times even tragic that our modern culture leads us so inexorably away from mindfulness and into the fragmented, stressful, interrupted vortex of our high technology-dependent lives.  Where is inner peace when the mental space we inhabit is shared and dominated by computers, smart phones and television, all vying for our attention at once?  As Adam Gopnik puts it in “The Information – How the Internet Gets Inside Us,” an article in the February 14-February 21, 2011 issue of “The New Yorker” magazine, “It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us.”  He adds, “Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.”  That would be the “very little self” of Hinduism, in contrast to the Higher Self of Mindfulness that is our true soul.

The great strength of Buddhism is its simplicity:  its turning away from the barbarism of India’s caste system and its embrace of the untouchables, which is so similar to Christ’s embrace of social outcasts, including prostitutes and the destitute.  As Thich Nhat Hanh puts it in his excellent book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ,” “Taking refuge in the Sangha (Buddhist community) is not a matter of devotion.  It is a matter of practice.”  In Buddhism, practice is everything.  If in Hinduism, devotion leads one to practice meditation and to live the dharma, in Buddhism, practice leads one to devotion.  But the object of one’s devotion, when it comes, is not God.  The object of devotion is the practice itself.

All my life, all I have known is my individual identity.  On an intellectual level, I realize that I am not separate from others and from God.  I also realize that my ego is the obstacle standing in the way of my really knowing and feeling my connection with the universe and with Spirit, because as of today, I don’t yet truly know it and feel it.  Just as the reflection of the sun’s rays on the moon are sometimes blocked by an eclipse, my radiant inner spirit is blocked by the opacity of my ego.

I also know that my ego is always afraid.  My ego can be described by what psychologists call the fight or flight mechanism.  In animals, the fight or flight response only presents itself in the face of real danger from a predator or a territorial competitor.  At other times, animals are quiet, calm and seemingly at complete peace with themselves.  In “The Power of Now,” Eckhart Tolle memorably describes how a duck’s flapping wings ruffle the water to display aggression to a rival, but the wings’ beats slow down, releasing negative energy as soon as the rival swims off.  By contrast, the human ego is constantly on alert, ready to fight or flee at virtually every single moment of our lives.  It is hyper-active, on over-drive, and this is what puts people in a constant state of anxiety or what Tolle calls a state of insanity.

I am very aware that I need to overcome my ego’s commandments if I want to attain a transcendent state of connectedness and peace with other beings.  But do I have to give up my personality to overcome my ego?  My personality is as unique as my fingerprint and I am loath to give it up, although it has to be said that everybody’s fingerprints look like identical patterns of curving parallel ridges and furrows until you examine them close up.  My ego, on the other hand, is pretty much like everybody else’s:  it is a little Napoleon with epaulets and a megaphone, standing on a soap box, haranguing a crowd of thousands, nay millions.  Toppling the ego is like toppling Hosni Mubarak – if you do it peacefully, your many-faceted personality can shine through.

Here is what C.S. Lewis says in “Mere Christianity” about how people can maintain and even enhance their unique individual personalities while growing in Christ or Spirit:

“…if Christ is one, and if He is thus to be ‘in’ us all, shall we not be exactly the same?  It certainly sounds like it; but in fact it is not so.   …Imagine a lot of people who have always lived in the dark.  You come and try to describe to them what light is like.  You might tell them that if they come into the light that same light would fall on them all and they would all reflect it and thus become what we call visible.  Is it not quite possible that they would imagine that, since they were all receiving the same light, and all reacting to it in the same way (i.e. all reflecting it), they would all look alike?  Whereas you and I know that the light will in fact bring out, or show up, how different they are.”

After presenting a second analogy about salt, Lewis concludes that you can “…kill the other tastes by putting in too much salt, whereas you cannot kill the taste of a human personality by putting in too much Christ.”

It is wrong to say that we should all conquer our egos, because conquering is an act of war and war is precisely what the ego is designed to excel at.  Instead, we need peacefully to transcend our egos.  That can be done without removing all the salts and spices that make up our individual personalities.  In fact, as we begin to transcend our egos, it could be said that we are replacing their stale ingredients with fresh organic ones that bring out the natural boldness of our individual flavors.

I am a sexually active person who would like to be more of a spiritual person.  Is there any conflict in this?  Why is it that religions are generally so opposed to sexual expression, except on the rare occasions of deliberate procreation between an officially married man and woman?  I say ‘rare occasions,’ because many of us have libidos that, if channeled exclusively into conceiving children, would result in a global birthrate many thousands or millions of times greater than the actual birthrate of any society.  Are we really supposed to suppress this wanton, fecund sexuality entirely except during the two, three, four or five times in our lives that we are planning to conceive a child?  Not an easy task!

In “Mere Christianity,” C.S. Lewis referred to what he thought of as our absurdly over-charged sexuality as a contemporary gross perversion of our essential human nature.  Lewis didn’t seem to realize that sexuality is biological and that all species are programmed, or in some cases over-programmed, with a biological imperative to reproduce.   Why he thought that modern man’s sex drive should be in any way diminished from a cave man’s instinctual need to survive and reproduce, I have no idea.  “Modern” as we are, and just because there are billions of humans in the world today instead of mere thousands, our brain structures and hormones are scarcely different than they were 30,000 years ago.  Much as I admire a lot of what Lewis wrote about Jesus Christ, I cannot accept his terse dismissal of human sexuality.  Still, he had a point that our sex drives can sometimes or even often interfere with our desire to find God.

As an example of just how much religion is opposed to sex, yesterday (February 9, 2011), I heard a report on NPR’s “All Things Considered” about a new smart-phone application for Roman Catholics to prepare for confession.  The app presents each confessant with a list of sins as long as the phone book, essentially asking each sinner to read down the list and check them off one by one ahead of time, before going in person to see a priest.  One of the questions is, “did you commit an act of masturbation in the last week?”  The Catholic woman interviewed about this on NPR laughed in surprise at the absurdity and intrusiveness of the question, suggesting that the app’s list of sins far outweighed anything she had ever heard directly from a priest.

So is it that religions are just uptight by nature and sex is natural and “okay?”  Every time I ask myself this question, I come back to the idea that all of us have an animal nature and a spiritual nature.  The most human part of our nature is the part of us that toggles back and forth between the two and that aspires to transcend sexuality in order to embrace more fully our spiritual identity.  As a gay man (and never was this more true than when I was in my twenties), when I am most attracted to another man, it is because I see him as some sort of magnificent animal padding across an urban savannah.  His heavy shoulders are swinging rhythmically left and right in time with his gait – he is a svelte panther, or a cougar, or a lion or a bear, and he is prowling for pray.  Sometimes the minute the splendid stranger speaks, his human-ness breaks his animal spell and my attraction is knocked back a notch or two.  Still, when I give in to my sexual urge, it is as if I enter fully and willingly into an animal trance, a trance that is essentially an interruption in my normal human and spiritually growing consciousness.

Sometimes pleasant or exciting, but always an interruption, of late my sexuality has become at times an unwanted interruption in my life.  I told my partner that my brain doesn’t really want it anymore, but my body insists upon it.   There is a growing part of me that wants to embrace God, and when I turn away from Him to indulge my animal nature it feels like an interruption of my true being or at least a detour on the path toward the spiritual person I want to be.  That must be why religions are so opposed to sex – it is an indulgence; an interference with our path to God; a pleasure of the body that occurs without worshipping the divine spark of life that is only kindled by a male and female body during conception.

I always told myself that the first goal in my pursuit of happiness was to find a way to live a balanced life.  If only I can balance work, family, friends, hobbies and interests, I believe I can find happiness.  Happiness occurs when none of them outweighs the others, because they are all in balance with each other.  In a funny way, God is in the balance, or if you can find balance in your life, you can find God.  The thing is, sex is part of the balance, and so is God.  Since I am not a monk and I probably have lifetimes to go before I really find enlightenment, even though I’m searching for it right now, I can’t help thinking that God will forgive me a little indulgence in the animal side of my nature as long as it doesn’t turn me away from Him. After all, my body is a divine gift and satisfying my bodily appetites keeps me feeling balanced.  I am not going to confess each occurrence to a priest, but I am still concentrating on turning toward God.  I’ll keep each interruption as short as possible!

 

Abandoned by Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity, the Bohemians of Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century Paris had to struggle to find the “centimes” to pay for their next espresso, but at least they could console themselves with the purity of their creative souls. Uncorrupted by “le sale capitalisme” (dirty capitalism,) they were immortalized in Edgar Degas’ painting, “The Absinthe Drinker,” which depicts a dejected but well-dressed Parisian lady deep in an absinthe-infused reverie as hazy as any opium dream, seated in a cafe next to a man who appears to be either a street drunk or a brilliant Bohemian masquerading as same.  The Bohemians gave Western society the odd notion that artistic expression is somehow best nourished by completely withholding monetary nourishment.  The vivid image of the starving artist in a sordid garret was born, no matter that it might be as beautiful a garret as Van Gogh’s room in his yellow house in Arles, in the South of France.

Speaking of yellow, several years ago my brother Bliss Kolb wrote, directed and produced a brilliant play on the theme of creativity and prosperity.  Titled “The Yellow Kid,” it was based on the lead character in an early newspaper comic strip called “Hogan’s Alley,” which was first published in 1895 in Joseph Pulitzer’s “New York World.”  A polemic advocating for social justice and the betterment of New York City’s down-and-out tenement dwellers, “the Yellow Kid” became so popular that William Randolph Hearst woke up and took note.  With visions of cash from future newspaper sales, he lured the comic artist, Richard Outcault, away to his own paper, “The New York Journal American.”  Thus it was that Hearst’s papers came to be associated with a new phrase, “yellow journalism.” 

Suddenly Outcault had a chance to earn a decent income, so after a bit of agonizing, at least according to the play’s version of events, he defected to Hearst’s paper.  Lakshmi appeared to be smiling, but there was a catch:   the “Journal American” was a  bourgeois enterprise driven by Victorian notions of family and propriety.  There was no place in it for a liberal polemic like “Hogan’s Alley,” so the yellow kid metamorphosed into a character upholding the commercial values of New York’s rising middle class, while turning his back on the scrappy, impoverished lads who had made his strip so popular.  Outcault had sold out for cash, and the play imagines that he made a bargain with the Devil, trading away his creativity for a regular high income.

Is this inevitable?  Does an artist need to turn away from Lakshmi’s coins in order to preserve his creativity intact?  I think not.  Monet lived a happy, bourgeois existence at Giverny, where late in life he produced his lily pond masterpieces.  Picasso also became well-heeled, without any observable dent in his fierce creativity.  These examples demonstrate that the enemy of creativity is not regular income or even wealth.  It is instead a three-pronged affair of laziness, complacency and insecurity or depression.  Any or all of those demons can strike any artist, just as they can strike any spiritual seeker, regardless of whether he or she is rich or poor.

 

Almost certainly the hardest spiritual lesson of all is the injunction that we need to overcome all our desires. The teaching is that we should really desire nothing at all, whereas in our daily lives we constantly want one thing or another, moment to moment, every moment, all of the time. This seems like a sort of Godly austerity policy – that we should immediately stop desiring sex, chocolate and our next trip to the mall or the multiplex. What a bummer is that; is God really such a party-pooper?

In a sense, there is nothing wrong with the austerity policy as a spiritual doctrine except that it misses the main point of the teaching. That point is a paradox: if we learn to want nothing, then we will want for nothing. Buddhist and Christian monks alike cast away their possessions because they are trading their desire to possess for the desire to be possessed by God. It is like giving up a heavy material burden and trading it for the gift of light energy.

We have all seen how trapped hoarders are by their possessions. Squeezed into their little caves, surrounded by piles of material debris, they don’t know what to do next or which way to turn. Then, when well-groomed young professionals come to haul away the piles, and the cartloads upon cartloads of stuff come trundling out of the house and into the driveway, air, light and peace finally enter their homes. Their burdens are cast away, replaced by sunny windows and shiny, waxed floors.

Nevertheless, we are a wordly lot and few of us are prepared to take the big step of becoming a monk or a nun. Already I’m thinking about the next movie I want to see, leading up to the 2011 Academy Awards. I want to know what the gods in tuxes and the goddesses in Dior and Versace have come to congratulate themselves about. Does this make me a bad person? And what about all the people, battered by the Great Recession, who can’t even afford bare necessities, let alone indulge their desires to hoard?

Enter Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance and prosperity, gold coins spilling from her fingertips. (For those of you who are disturbed by her goddess status as an affront to monotheism, please remember that she is merely one manifestation or avatar of the one and only God, along with of course Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Krishna, Kali and a whole host of others. For a complete iconography, please refer to Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.”) Anyway, the most important thing about Lakshmi is that the coins are falling from her fingers; she is not holding on to them. She is giving, not receiving. What Lakshmi seems to be telling us is that she will grant us prosperity provided that we pass it on to others. After all, we talk about money as “cash flows” and “circulation.” Money is a river that either flows through you when things are ‘going right,’ or merely flows around you as if you are a rock in the stream when things are ‘going wrong.’ When the money flow stops due to hoarding by individuals like Scrooge and institutions like “banks that are too big to fail,” everybody suffers. But it is perfectly all right to let Lakshmi’s coins flow through you: you are asking her for prosperity, not for hoarded treasure.

By contrast, what happens when we hoard is given vivid imagery in C.S. Lewis’ “Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” from his Narnia series of children’s books. In the movie version, which I recently saw, the voyagers disembark on an island filled with treasure. There in a cave they encounter a limpid pool in which any object you dip turns to gold. No wonder that they discover the solid gold body of one of the lost lords of Narnia lurking just below the surface. Meanwhile, the bratty boy Eustace runs off to find a narrow canyon filled with gold treasure. When he tries to pick up as much of it as he can hold in his hands and cart it away, he is immediately turned into a dragon with coarse golden scales.

As heavy-handed as these mythical warnings are, they teach a valuable lesson about the spiritual uses of money and capital. In order to benefit as many of us as possible and corrupt as few as possible, money is meant to flow freely like the coins in Lakshmi’s fingers. It seems reasonable to conclude, as dear old Benjamin Franklin must have done, that God is not especially interested in any of us becoming Midas, but neither does He prohibit us from sustaining ourselves by wisely saving and spending the money that flows to us. As Hindu philosophers might say, ‘to have what we need to sustain us is enough.’ Just as it is “enough” to be healthy and strong without being a champion bodybuilder, it is enough to prosper without being rich. Spiritual growth is not possible without bodily sustenance and personal well-being. Both rely on Lakshmi’s coins.