Friday, August 11, 2017

Leaving the Past Behind

Abandoned by the Contoocook
CC Jean Stimmell:5/30/16
Undergoing ER visits and two hospital admissions fighting multiple infections, over the last six weeks, split me open like an overripe tomato. The result has been, unexpectedly, a spiritual awakening.

Suffering in pain from a total knee transplant, combined with volatile fevers resulting in alternating chills and burning up from ongoing infections put me in limbo land: totally dependent on doctors and staff who, in turn, could provide me no answers, no lasting respite from my illness – because I was proving to be allergic to most antibiotics.

Floating in what, at times, seemed like an endless la-la land, all possibilities became real, even death, but not with a sense of fear but weary resignation. This is how people die, I thought – even me–slowly taken down peg by peg by escalating medical procedures and repeated allergic reactions, until, one day, I slip seamlessly to the other side, a void that seemed to me, little different than the feverish hallucinations of daily hospital life.

Then, suddenly, my world shifted: I transcended from terminal weariness to sublime peace and calm: Worldly cares and material concerns evaporated. I found myself floating on a forgiving cushion, resting totally in the here-and-now, a cloud without beginning or end.

My world reduced to the size of my hospital bed,  my bum exposed in my hospital johnny, having control over hardly anything, dependent on others for everything, yet how can it be: I felt totally free – and sublimely happy to be alive in this moment of time.

Whatever happened, I don’t want to lose that feeling.

According to spiritual gurus, experiences like mine can, indeed, lead to revelations and epiphanies: “Often times, extreme suffering is the portal to spiritual awakening. Great pain and desperation can make a person willing to die. And spiritual awakening is a death, a death of mistaken identity and a realization of who we truly are.”⁠1

Thankfully, my ordeal that started June 27th, suddenly ended this week: A genius, infectious disease doctor burst into my room like an angel and diagnosed my malady in less than 5 minutes. Following her treatment plan, I made immediate progress, enough to be discharged from the hospital Wednesday, August 9th. I am now on a trajectory toward full recovery.

I feel like a sailor in a lifeboat, long adrift on the open sea who, suddenly wakes up to find his boat has washed up on an island: not any island, but a rich tropical paradise.

I am writing this all down because I do not want to forget or make-light-of the importance of my experience. I intend to meditate on my fragile awakening daily. There are important lessons to be learned.

P.S. My most sincere thanks for my superb support: Russet, my son, my friends, and, in particular all the caring doctors, nurses, VNA, tech people and staff who hung in there and didn’t give up on me.


Sunday, August 6, 2017

Wanting vs. Being in the age of Trump

Published in the Concord Monitor, August 2, 2017
My son Ian, cc 1983, pondering the Winter Solstice

Wanting versus Being in the Age of the Celebrity (769 words)

I know I’m older than dirt but when I was growing up in the aftermath of WWII, 7 decades ago, good character and honesty were important. Someone could be a person of modest means, holding a humble station in life, yet be looked up to by the entire community because of her or his exemplary values. We praised such people knowing their word was as good as their bond.

This respect was a fundamental element in what it meant to be an American. We looked up to those role models who had high moral values, like the legendary account of Abraham Lincoln walking six miles to return a three-cent overcharge to a customer.

But sadly, over time we have lost sight of those perennial virtues, and forgotten the people who represented them.

We’ve regressed from a state of being where we were able to rest on our own laurels, feeling worthwhile and secure, knowing we were honest and capable of doing the right thing, to a state of wanting: wanting to be slim, beautiful, and have a trophy mate; wanting a big house, three cars, two boats and an ATV; wanting to have an advanced degree, fine clothes, and collect expensive wine; wanting to win the lottery and be the envy of all our friends.

We’ve slid from an authentic state of being based on timeless values to a pathological state of wanting without end. Buddhists would these insatiable cravings the realm of hungry ghosts.

The more secular, materialistic, and instrumental we have become, the more our cravings have increased until we now worship a different kind of god: those favored few who satisfy their larger-than-life cravings by any means necessary, walking rough-shown over all who cross their path. We call them celebrities.

In the long run, what we wish for, we were bound to get. It was only a matter of time before one of these celebrities would claw himself to the top, eviscerating all rivals with taunts, threats, and bald-faced lies, to become our president.

Congratulations Donald Trump! You are the first celebrity ruthless enough and immoral enough to successfully render our democratic traditions null and void.

Funny thing, though… Now Trump has become president, rather than fulfilling his campaign promises, he is acting like an escaped balloon pumped too full of air, chaotically spinning out of control, without purpose or direction, losing air and altitude as he goes.

How could it be otherwise. He has no inner compass to guide him, no empathy, values, or spirituality to help him distinguish right from wrong. He isn’t governing a spreadsheet of widgets to maximize profits but real, flesh-and-blood human beings who need his help.

He is an addict to his cravings like a heroin addict willing to steal from his mother. But don’t think we are all that different.

We are all addicts to our cravings and that is why we can’t muster the gumption to reform ourselves or our government. That’s not just my opinion.

It coincides with the view of Gabor Mate, Canadian physician, writing in the current issue of Psychotherapy Networker. [1] He takes issue with the widespread view that an addition is either an individual choice or an inherited disease.

Mate makes the case that “addictive patterns of behavior are rooted in the alienation and emotional suffering that are inseparable from Western capitalist cultures, which, by favoring striving and acquiring over noticing and caring for one another, end up short-changing– and too often traumatizing– children and families.”

I think Mate makes a legitimate argument. Rather than government being the enemy, it is time for government to step up, as it did with the New Deal during the 1930s, to nurture the connections between members of every family, especially those in need, understanding that family and community are the glue which holds our society together.

I’m not advocating the overthrow of capitalism. That would be impossible right now. But I am advocating a return to civility and honoring the values that did make us great, along with a larger role for government in reducing the historically high, yet still rising, level of income inequality between the rich and the rest of us.

We can start work to begin leveling the playing field by providing all Americans with universal health care, a livable wage, a dignified retirement, and affordable but excellent education for all.

If we don’t nurture the connective tissue that unites us, our remarkable American experiment in democracy and self-government will slip away and we will find ourselves hostages in a living, collective nightmare, eaten alive by hungry ghosts.

[1] Psychotherapy Networker, July/August 2017, page 33-35

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Photographs more evocative than The Scream or Guernica

After a Syrian Air Force Strike, January 2013
Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
This photograph is more evocative to me than The Scream by Edvard Munch or Guernica by Pablo Picasso. It breaks my heart, symbolizing to me how our modern world – due to greed and lack of empathy – is promoting rampant climate change and mushrooming war, creating mass extinctions and a living hell on earth. 

May the gods, wherever they are, have mercy on us.

Here is another iconic photograph of what living hell looks like from the Vietnam war, which I sadly served in.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hanging by a Thread

Adam's Point: 4/23/17
CC Jean Stimmell
Dark reveries swirl through my head as I come out anesthesia, swimming in pain medication, after total knee replacement surgery. In rapid succession, like channel surfing, stream of consciousness segments dance across my mind.

Right now, I am reliving a waking vision, I first had many years ago, so real that I wrote about it at the time for the Monitor.

 I am standing on an ocean beach consumed with foreboding, watching the tide go out and out, exposing a rock-strewn bottom with fish flopping about in muddy puddles, all the way to the horizon. I didn’t know about the existence of Tsunamis, at that point in my life, but sensed something horrible was happening.

And, so it was. Soon, I hear a deafening roar and watch in horror as the tide reverses, sending a massive wave, several hundred feet tall, right toward me. The dream ends with my world going dark as I am swept away by the avenging tide.

Meanwhile, my hospital roommate, also recuperating from knee surgery, is having a terrible time, moaning and groaning, flopping about in his bed from Restless Leg Syndrome and frequently calling out to the nurses, who rush in with various pain meds that do no good.

Trying to escape, I switched on the TV only to be assaulted with a barrage of news stories about death and destruction. Two pieces stood out: a UN report estimating that there are 21 million refugees worldwide, 5 million from Syria alone. That’s bad enough. But, on top of that, there’s an additional 44 million displaced folks, who are exiles inside their own countries, trying to survive like the flopping fish in my Tsunami dream.

Millions of our disinherited brothers and sisters have been cast off their land, directly or indirectly, because of climate change; most of the rest are displaced by war, a pursuit in which the U.S. is undisputed world champion: Since WW II, we have engaged in an accelerating string of wars, getting drawn in ever deeper in conflicts around the world, wars we can never win.

Back in the 1950s, Dwight Eisenhower, WW II military hero who understood the human cost of war, warned us about this looming danger, a consequence of the accelerating influence of the military-industrial complex: ”Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

My feverish mind spun again, this time landing on something the Buddha said, 2700 years ago, acknowledging this same human dilemma:

I’ll tell you of the anxious dread
that made me to shake all over:
Seeing creatures flopping around,
like fishes in shallow water
so hostile to one another!
–Seeing this, I became afraid.

Then the Buddha goes on to offer a mind-blowing solution!

Seeing people locked in conflict
I became completely distraught…
…But then I discerned here a thorn
hard to see, lodged deep the heart
It is only when pierced by this thorn
that one runs in all directions.
So if that thorn is taken out –
one does not run, one does not sink...[1]

What the Buddha is saying so totally counter-intuitive, it blows my mind! Especially in our country where we worship the Second Amendment, We normally think of ourselves as safer when we are armed. But Buddha is saying the opposite; the taking up or arms is not something born of fear but what gives birth to fear.

In my untethered, chemically altered state, this is a revelation from on high: Rather than some pie-in-the-sky notion, it is the Rosetta Stone, the key to human survival in our postmodern world of escalating nuclear proliferation and accelerating climate change. 

And, yes, it can be done! Starting from the grassroots, from you and me pulling the thorns from our hearts.

Because we are all pierced by these thorns of unwholesome cravings and desire – greed, hate, delusion and their toxic emotional byproducts – we will have to learn to take them out by careful practice: careful practice being nice to each other.

It will take hard work: our habits and ingrained societal worldviews are difficult to change. But it can be done if we are motivated enough. People do it all the time: training for a marathon, learning to play the violin, beating an addiction.

The only difference here is that the goal is not just our individual welfare, but the fate of the earth.

[1]  These verses, translated by Andrew Olenski, are found in one of the oldest parts of the Pali Canon and, according to Olenski, “very likely express the Buddha’s own process of trepidation and discovery.”

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Magic Tree

Great Bay Mother
CC Jean Stimmell: 6/17/17
Apparently there are now video games about digital magic trees. I prefer real ones like the one I seek solace under – and receive revelations fromin –  embraced in a mysterious world where water meets the land along the edge of Great Bay.

Compare the majesty and sacredness of Great Bay Mother with the video magic tree below.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Tao says we can learn from water

The Tao
Cascades at Franconia Notch, NH: 9/24/15
CC Jean Stimmell

The Taoist philosophy expressed in the Tao Te Ching points us toward what our essence is, beyond language and thought: natural patterns, rhythms of nature, wisdom related to the systemic nature of what is already here.

"Water seeks its own level; lowly and humble. It serves as it goes, as humans could; it returns again and again.  It is patient; it wears away the hard rocks. On the surface it is reflective, showing the ripple effect of any impact; dropping through space it cascades, and it runs underground secretly..."*

 * Notes on water and The Tao taken from Heaven's Fractal Net: Retrieving Lost Visions in the Humanities, Volume 1 By William Joseph Jackson

Monday, June 12, 2017

We Two Together: The Earth and Us

We Two Together: a sculpture by Michael Alfano,
currently on display at the Mill Brook Gallery
Photograph:: CC Jean Stimmell

We Two Together pulls at me, drawing me in deeper and deeper, a visual manifestation of recent thoughts and feelings. We Two Together is a sculpture by Michael Alfano, currently on exhibit overlooking a lush garden pond outside the Mill Brook Gallery and Sculpture Garden in Concord, NH. The sculpture depicts two lovers, joined as one, surrounded, in turn, by the greater whole of nature’s embrace.

We Two Together resonates with me in the same manner as an ecstasy poem I recently read by the Sufi poet, Rumi:

Your Love lifts my Soul from the body to the Sky
And you lift me up out of the two worlds.
I want your Sun to reach my raindrops,
So your heat can raise my Soul upward like a cloud.

It also triggered thoughts about a provoking piece by Paul Kingsnorth in the current issue of Orion Magazine1, suggesting we deal with climate change by awakening our sense of the sacred and practicing a new animism. His thoughts correspond with my own thinking.

I was converted to the notion that our Earth is a living, breathing organism since the 1960s, after first viewing that iconic photograph from space of our heavenly blue spaceship earth, and later read James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, which outlines how all of us as living beings interact with our inorganic surroundings to create a self-regulating system – a giant living organism – maintaining and perpetuating ideal conditions for life.

That notion still fills me with awe: it blows my socks off! To my way of thinking, indigenous folks around the world have been right all along: the Earth is a living being; She is our Mother.

I am engulfed in that same soaring sense of awe when I view We Two Together. Not surprisingly, I have diametrically opposing feelings for both our government officials and mainstream consumer society who laugh at the idea of a living earth and sadly, as a secondary result, poopoo the threat of climate change.

Who can deny, in our technological society, we take the earth for granted, treating her like an inert object: either a storehouse of commodities to be used and discarded, or as scenic, background prop to our lives, as if we were staging a movie.

Increasingly, however, in this age of man-made climate change, we pollute  at our own peril. While more of us perceive the danger, most offer as solutions only new government regulations or technical fixes. But, like the domestic abusers we are, I fear we will continue to defile the earth until, if and when, we recognize her sacred nature.

We have no choice but to change. The question is, will it be in time? Our survival  – along with most life forms on planet earth – depends on us stepping up in time to reclaim our primal forbearer’s reverence for our home.

 Kingsnorth, in his essay, is not sure if we need a new religion, but he makes a powerful case for a renewal of the sacred to re-awaken in us a sense of awe and wonder for something bigger than us:

What could that something greater be? There is no need to theorize about it. What is greater than us is the earth itself—life—and we are folded into it, a small part of it, and we have work to do. We need a new animism, a new pantheism, a new way of telling the oldest of stories. We could do worse than to return to the notion of the planet as the mother that birthed us. Those old stories have plenty to say about the fate of people who don’t respect their mothers.

In the spirit of Rumi, poetic teller of the oldest of stories, we must reclaim our Earth for who she really is: a living, breathing body, our beloved other. She is our Mother, supporting and cradling us, the source of all life.