Tuesday, September 30, 2008

David Loy and Erykah Badu

Last weekend I went to hear David Loy give a talk called “Healing Ecology: A Buddhist Perspective on the Eco-Crisis,” at U.T. Austin. Loy is a professor, the Besl Family Chair for Ethics/Religion and Society, at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also Zen Buddhist teacher. His talk explored how Buddhist ideas of interconnection, compassion, and exchanging self for others, might speak to current environmental problems.

Loy first described the notion, based on the Buddhism's principle of no-self (anatta) and its attendant radical non-dualism, that to help others is to help oneself. If we accept this idea, and if we agree that we are currently facing an unprecedented ecological crisis, this principle logically leads to the fact that humans as a species must protect the environment in order to protect ourselves. There is no separation. What’s good for nature is good for us.

It strikes me that this idea allies closely with the Gaia Hypothesis, the idea that the earth is a complex living organism, of which we humans are only one part. Loy’s discussion also closely resonates with ideas of sustainable economics (or ecological economics), which question neoclassical economics’ assumption that infinite economic growth is a good thing. Our whole global market economy is based on the idea that the economy must constantly be growing, that we must always have bigger, better, faster, more, in order to be “healthy.” But isn’t that idea rather absurd when you think about it? The earth is a finite resource, and a delicately balanced system at that. Shouldn’t our economic system, in order to be deemed “healthy,” work in harmony with the larger environmental system in which it is embedded rather than positing a goal of infinite growth?

The next day I went to the Austin City Limits Music Festival and heard Erykah Badu rock out and speak out about politics and the broken system. She referred specifically to a documentary called Fourth World War (2003), which follows various resistance movements to globalization, war, and poverty. She was so moved by the film that she named her new album after it. And it strikes me that there are so many people out there, coming from so many perspectives, viewpoints, and experiences, but all seeking a change, seeing that the system is broken. How might we all come together? How might we harness all of that energy and love and put it towards actually creating change? How could we create a system that serves everyone and seeks harmony and balance, with the earth, with all people and all beings? I guess it has to come from the ground up. We are all implicated. Change begins right here, right now, with you and me, baby.

Photo by Melinda Rothouse.

Friday, September 26, 2008

More snippets from my travels in Ireland

Yesterday was anxious, emotional, angsty
Today all is calm, all is peaceful
there is nothing to do but be,
nothing to anticipate,
nowhere to go but this very moment ~
rushing headlong into a great adventure
Through the airplane window
sensuous crescent moon:
the journey begins
Smoky, damp air
a spectrum of greys and greens.
Trudging through misty streets
both foreign and familiar ~
it feels good just to breathe
Raindrops falling gently
against the windowpane
sleep will come easily tonight

Photo by Melinda Rothouse.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Poems on Death and Devotion in Ireland

id’s Well

I see it first from above
through sprigs of fuchsia
tied with bits of tattered,
multicoloured fabric,
a trickle among stones.
Gazing up from the grotto, there’s
Jesus in a frame, and a trio
of Virgin Marys draped
with rosary beads ~
pious, penitent, prayerful.

Over every surface, a collage
of mementos, trinkets, and keepsakes
serving a second life as relics.
A careful clutter of candles and coins,
ribbons and faded flowers,
their once-brilliant colors now fading
to grey.
Headless plastic baby doll, an infant’s
pink onesie
and Hello Kitty, hanging from a string.

Dizzy, bearing witness
to so much life-in-death,
clumsily congealed and scrawled
with grief,
I pay silent homage
to this sacred spring
that gives of itself simply, freely
to all who come near, seeking solace,
just seeking.

Photographs of the dead
look on, lifelike.
as holy water
gurgles from the earth
undergirding everything.

Touching Time
St. Enda’s Church and Cemetery, Inishmore

Around the bend, and there it is –
graveyard among grasslands
As I pedal down the quiet coastal road
low tide has turned the bay to mud,
a broad reach of seaweed
and tidal pools.

Neat rows of Celtic crosses
mark a tidy city of the dead.
But closer now, I see
rising from the turf, the carcass
of a structure –
bones of stone.

Ruins. Ruination.

A narrow, sloping trail leads
around the edge of the ancient church,
down through the generations.

Now I stand
enclosed by four walls,
open to the sky
yet below ground level.
On each side of the narrow chamber,
low, wide bowls accept offerings of rust-encrusted coins
from modern-day pilgrims.

Beyond these walls lie
the ever-growing strata
of bones utilized and then discarded,
returning to earth.
Only the recently departed retain
their identities, names and dates carved into smooth stone.
Beneath them are the rest –
nameless, faceless.
I feel them beckoning.
I am sinking
into the tangled strands
of time.

Photo by Melinda Rothouse.

In Search of the Sacred at Gougane Barra, Ireland

Photo by Melinda Rothouse.

Gougane Barra, a valley withdrawn, a garden enclosed, the holiest place I know. Here, by this quiet pool, where, for a thousand years, tired souls have prayed, there is the peace that passes all understanding…With each step up a wider horizon. So it should be with life; our outlook ever widening towards the infinite rather than narrowing to the vanishing point of our own identities.

- Robert Gibbings

…when you walk in mindfulness, you are in touch with all the wonders of life within you and around you

- Thich Nhat Hanh

In the southwest corner of County Cork, Ireland, sits a forest park called Gougane Barra. The site of Celtic midsummer celebrations, a Catholic hermitage and pilgrimage site, and, more recently, national park and forest preserve, Gougane Barra, with its steep hillsides, lush forests, and jewel-like alpine lake, has captured the imagination of mystics and seekers for millenia. It’s off the beaten path – you can’t easily get there by bus or train, and you won’t find it in most guidebooks, but here, where boundaries begin to blur—boundaries of time and space, nature and humanity, the sacred and the profane—you may find the mists parting to reveal to you something about yourself and your place in this world.

While the others in my group tackle the steep paths up to the mountain peaks and the spectacular vistas they promise, I choose to stay in the valley, along the headwaters of the river Lee, here barely a stream. As Lao Tzu says in the Tao Te Ching, there is value in keeping to the low places, in following the example of a mountain stream:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people disdain.
Thus it is like the Tao. (Stephen Mitchell translation)

I haven’t the energy or ambition on this particular day to climb a mountain or conquer the world, so I explore the valley, keeping the river on my left. I am accompanied by the gentle murmur of the stream, growing louder, more insistent, as it moves gradually up the valley, creating little waterfalls as it negotiates the incline, and I delight in its gurgles and cascades. It feels good just to breathe, to wander aimlessly but attentively, to feel the soft earth yielding slightly with each footstep.

As I walk around Gougane Barra in the rain, I am constantly brought back to the freshness and wonder of each moment ~ the smooth sheen of the lake’s surface, the fine mist and smoky dampness of the air, the lush greens of the forest and alpine meadows. A playful fog moves across the hillsides, now shielding them from view, now unveiling them. I hear from across the valley the steady splash of a waterfall, dropping sharply down its narrow channel. Everything is shifting constantly in a dynamic dance ~ the weather, the mist, the view. With each moment, with each step, a new perspective.

At times, off to the right, are dark alcoves created by thickly growing low pine trees and brush ~ dark, damp, uncertain places like a cave or a womb. Veering from the main path, seeing a marvelously green glade of moss-covered rocks, a fairy dwelling, sheltered by trees, I climb, my feet sinking and squishing in its mossy floor. This would be the perfect place to sit and meditate, but I have not yet quite let go of myself enough to plunk down on the soggy ground. I continue on into the forest, my feet sinking deeper into boggy, water-saturated mud, but after a few more paces, I stop, hesitant, unsure.

I don’t want to get lost here, already separated from the rest of my group, but it’s something more than that, something primeval and slightly sinister ~ the power of nature, the Tao, the goddess, somehow amplified and distilled in the place. I feel my insignificance here. Is it that we’ve just been talking of fairies and their devious ways? I fear I could be swallowed up by this vastness, sucked down into the watery earth, never to return. It’s a subtle but potent feeling, a nagging hesitation, and after a certain point I return to the main road, symbol of civilization and the way back.

Returning to the lake and to St. Finbarr’s island chapel, I admire the exquisite hues of the stained glass windows and ponder the Celtic designs on the walls behind the altar ~ symbols of Celtic Christianity, of the fusion of Catholicism and paganism, manifested in iconography. Although it’s peaceful and quiet inside the chapel, I’m finding it difficult to meditate there. There’s a deadness, a separation from nature; this interior space is thoroughly Christianized, tamed.

But stepping out through the massive wooden doors of the chapel, suddenly I am back, the connection re-established. I follow a stone walkway around to the back of the church. A huge, spidery, banyan-like tree glistens there, perched sensuously within a little glade. It’s stunning, and a bit unsettling, like some strange, octopus-like mythological creature. Could this be the true power-center of Gougane Barra, a sacred grove? Sanctuary of the goddess?

It’s said that the Christians placed their churches at the exact locations of previously-existing sacred sites, and it makes me wonder about St. Finbarr’s choice of location for his hermitage. The tree stops my mind completely, like a moment of satori in zen. It zaps me back, viscerally, into the present moment.

Walk mindfully through the natural world…Feel the wonders she is constantly offering.