Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Be Here Now


Dotty, the downy woodpecker at my feeder

I am sitting here on my deck in the dappled sunlight, the breeze blowing through my hair, barefoot in a trance. A profound peacefulness reigns, a sense of contentment, a feeling of belonging, of being grounded – all of this orchestrated by a downy woodpecker swinging from the suet cage in my crabapple tree. Her name is Dotty.

It dawns on me that I have been missing in action as of late,  too busy to be grounded in the really real, too caught up in the daily political dramas. All of which distracted me and, I can see now, hurt me, absorbing me deeper into theWorld Wide Web and the nonstop yearnings of our 24/7 consumer culture.

I experienced a glimpse of a deeper, more complete world just now on my deck, a state of silence described well by Eckhart Tolle: “You are present. You have stepped out of thousands of years of collective  conditioning⁠1, As I sat there, I could feel the gears in my head stop grinding from thinking too much.

I should know better by now from lessons learned in “Be Here Now,” written in the 1960s by Ram Das.  He made abundantly clear that “Meditation goes beyond the thinking mind….[illuminating] the truth that who you really are is more than who you think you are.”⁠2

For a blessed moment, I removed myself from the cacophony of civilization and joined Dotty’s world. I had no choice. Starting a few days ago, she started audaciously knock, knock, knockin’ on my door – actually the wall above the door.

She wasn’t kidding!

 She proceeded to punch a series of holes, one directly under the other, straight through the one-inch, rough-sawn pine boards that clad my home. The pile of wood chips was starting to pile up on my front stoop. I had to do something.

I hung up some suet to pacify Dotty and withdrew to my deck to relax. That’s when I fell into the trance already mentioned, while Dotty celebrated her victory: wakening me up to the present moment while getting fed a treat.

I don’t do Facebook or Twitter, yet I can see now I’ve spent too much time watching the news and listening to talking-heads bloviate about the cacophony of crises that confront us. Altogether, electronic media combined with excess thinking had abstracted my being. I was unaware of the consequences: These entrancing flickering screens were grooming me for Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse. 

It took Dotty to show me that his virtual world is a phantom cloud without substance, separating me from my true self. I, of all people, should know better from being a long-time fan of Charlene Spretnak, who convincingly makes the case that only three things are really real: our body, nature, and sense of place.⁠3

Of course, that doesn’t mean I can ignore the outside world, but the balance has been lost. It has made me ungrounded, distracted, and disoriented, progressively unable to be truly present with my friends, Dotty, or the earth itself.

After meditating on the deck, I felt life ebbing back into my bones, which spurred me to write this essay. All I needed to finish was a snappy ending. Going back inside the house – as if by synchronicity – I found what I needed in an email that had just arrived from a trusted friend: It was a Taoist parable about how to find meaning in life.

“During a time of great drought, a Taoist master was asked by members of a village if he could help bring rain to their dry fields… The master agreed to come and asked for a small hut with a garden that he could tend. For three days, he tended the garden, performing no special rituals…”

“On the fourth day, rain began to fall on the parched earth.” But the master refused to take responsibility. Instead, “he explained, when he came to the village, he had sensed disharmony within himself. Each day, as he tended the garden, he returned a little more to himself. When he returned to balance, the rain came naturally.”⁠4

It is said this was one of the favorite stories of Carl Jung, the legendary psychologist. I’m not surprised because he believed nothing was a coincidence – including what happened to the farmers in the parable or to the woodpecker and me. Instead, he thought that the inner attitude of a person is inseparable from events taking place in the world. He called this psychological principle synchronicity.

Dotty and I are true believers.



1 “Stillness Speaks” by Eckhard Tolle. Gale Engage Learning. 2003. page 23.

2 “Polishing the Mirror,” by Ram Das. 2014. Sounds True, Boulder CO. page 1

3 “The Resurgence of the Real” by Charlene Spreknak. Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. 1997

4 https://www.huffpost.com/entry/a-taoist-parable_b_10007270

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Disability and Death: Perhaps not the End but the Beginning


CC Jean Stimmell: 2017

I never considered myself to be handicapped until recently, after listening to a podcast on disability theory. After all, I wasn’t in a wheelchair. It never dawned on me that I, along with my fellow aging baby boomers, are already handicapped – despite the indisputable evidence that our minds are slowing down, leaking memories like a sieve, while our bodies are disintegrating like cars in a demolition derby.

That’s why, according to disability theory, old age itself is a disability.

Like most of us, I am in denial, resisting the notion that I’m going downhill and will someday die. It’s hard to be old in a country obsessed with being young. In our consumer society, a whole industry has sprung up to sell us stuff to keep us forever in our prime – or so they claim. They know they have to work fast to cash in before we go belly up.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow to admit old age is a progressive disability with death as the end result. But it is also a wake-up call to remind us of the task ahead. As James Hillman, the prominent Jungian psychologist, tells us, our mission in old age shifts from self-preservation to finding meaning in our lives.

"The old have gravitas when their insight reaches into the invisible core of things, into what is hidden and buried," he writes. "When the body begins to sag, it is abandoning sham and hypocrisy. The body leads the way down, deepening your character."⁠1

John Donne proclaimed the same message preaching from the pulpit back in the 17th century: “Death — the looming fact of it, its finality and clarifying power — calls us to attention and wakes us up to life.⁠2” That’s also the core belief of Buddhism: Death is seen not as a downhill slide but as a  final stage of growth. 

Frank Ostaseski,  a  Buddhist teacher and visionary cofounder of the Zen Hospice Project, writes that we gain wisdom and compassion by facing death. In doing so, we discover the crux of what we share in common with our fellow human beings: the absolute uncertainty of our lives: “We become aware of the fundamental truth that everything comes and goes: every thought, every lovemaking, every life. We see that dying is in the life of everything.”⁠3

Resisting this truth leads to pain. One might think that I had long ago accepted the reality of my mortality from so many close brushes with death from a wild and crazy youth, Vietnam combat, and four cancers. But that is not the case. I still live in a blissful state of denial unless I purposely force myself to focus on my end – which is what I’m doing right now by writing this essay.

Some Buddhists encourage this exercise by doing various graphic visualizations such as: meditating on their own body in a coffin being consumed by worms, meditating in front of a dead body, or carrying around a picture of a corpse to constantly remind them that death is real.

While doing research for this column, I discovered an intriguing alternative to corpse meditations: A Green Burial on my own land. Not only does it force me to attend to what’s to come, it does so in a restorative and spiritual way.

To convey what I'm imagining would happen if I were buried cozily on my beloved land, I can do no better than paraphrase the poetic words of Casey Lyons, taken from the current edition of Orion Magazine: 

“The poisons inside my body will be neutralized by the fungi and I will travel through mycelium to roots in a sprawling, if poorly understood, exchange that underwrites life. My edges will become blurry, then meaningless, as mushrooms reorganizes my body toward life again. Then I’ll push back into the sunlight on my  land where I was happiest, maybe as a leaf or an insect, soil or bird, snake or rabbit. In practically no time, I will be gone and yet everywhere. Joined. Connected. Safe.”⁠4

I used to envy deeply religious folks who were confident that their death wasn't the end but the beginning as they were ushered into everlasting life. Now, It looks like I can have that assurance, too.



1 https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1999-11-21-9911230591-story.html

2 https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/10/opinion/john-donne-death.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20220910&instance_id=71658&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=30753738&segment_id=106000&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

3 Ostaseski, Frank. The Five Invitations  Flatiron Books. Kindle Edition.

4 https://orionmagazine.org/article/luke-perry-mushroom-shroud-90210-riverdale/

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Serena’s Hero Journey as Seen By an Old Person

Photo: Nike

I’m so proud of Serena Williams. She deserves to be celebrated as the victorious hero who conquered the rarified world of tennis, formerly the realm of only the lily-white upper crust. She has stood out, not only because of her class, color, and shape, but by her fashion awareness, rejecting chaste, white tennis outfits for sexy originals in flamboyant color. Last, but not least, rather than preforming sedately and demurely like dancing a waltz, she attacked with the ferocity of a raging bull.

By her audacity, she ripped off the gentile facade of women’s tennis, exposing it for what it really is: “boxing without punches.” That’s how it has been aptly described by ESPN senior writer Howard Bryant: “With the exception of boxing, there is no other sport as viscerally clear and unsentimental about victory and defeat. Two fighters. No help. No timeouts. No teammates. One winner.⁠1

Smashing through so many glass ceiling, Serena showcased the female counterpart of the Heroes Journey, formerly the domain of only men. The notion of a “Hero’s Journey” comes from Joseph Campbell, the legendary mythologist, who believed all cultures have certain universal archetypes.

The Hero’s Journey is one of the most prominent of these stories and has several distinct stages: going on an adventure, facing a crisis, emerging triumphant, and then retuning home victorious. An essential component of  any such storyline is that they evoke intense responses from the audience.⁠2

We can certainly observe this in the spectator reaction to her coming home last week to New York for perhaps her last tournament. NPR described it well: “the adoration has been unanimous – strangers high-fiving a Williams winner or an ace, people hugging and standing in celebration. And roaring. Always roaring.”⁠3 This is because, as psychologist Kobie van Krieken tells us, ”Stories that mainly visualise the hero's journey result in catharsis: strong emotions of pleasure and relief.”⁠4

By her groundbreaking efforts in all these realms, Serena has made the Hero’s Journey as applicable to women as it is to men. But just leaving it at that would still sell her short. Her journey is more complex, revolutionary, and visionary than that.

Charles Eisenstein sheds light on this, writing an insightful essay about the need for more sophisticated archetypes, incorporating the wisdom that comes from age. He, like me, is long past the time of leaving home to seek his fortune. But, as all of us older folks have found out, our journey didn’t end when we settled down.⁠5

Shortchanging our life’s journey diminishes us as individuals and, worse, threatens our collective survival: “We have been flogging the Hero’s Journey like a tired horse in hopes that it will drag the wagon of civilizational sense-making a few more decades into the future. But few people are actually excited about a manned mission to Mars, or the latest in implantable computing. Another mode of development calls us.”⁠6

Absolutely! We can no longer afford more of the same: Defining every problem as an excuse to conquer and dominate, as a war to win at all costs. What we need is a more sophisticated version of our human journey, something more sustainable with loftier ends in mind. As it turns out, Serena has been evolving toward this vision for some time. We were offered our first clue by noticing she won her final title of her career while pregnant with her daughter, Olympia.

As her string of winning 23 Grand Slam single titles comes to an end, her life is not. She wants to have another child and spend more time with her family, but that’s not the end either. On top of her fashion business, she has started Serena Ventures, one of the few high-stakes venture capital(VC) companies run by women and minorities. Better yet she says 78% of her VC’s portfolio "happens to be companies started by women and people of color, because that's who we are."⁠7 

Ultimately, Serena’s Hero’s Journey is one of a peaceful warrior. Arriving at the end of her sports career, she is already evolving into the next stage of her destiny, dedicated to family, relationships, and creating a more sustainable and just society. As usual, she is pulling the rest of us along behind her.



1 https://www.espn.com/tennis/story/_/id/34469736/serena-williams-myth-passing-torch

2 https://www.skillshare.com/blog/the-heros-journey-stages-and-structure/

3 https://www.npr.org/2022/09/02/1120558075/serena-williams-us-open-retires

4 https://www.ru.nl/facultyofarts/@1172776/how-ad-heroes-move-us-connect-us-brands/

5 https://charleseisenstein.substack.com/p/neither-hero-nor-journey?utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email

6 Ibid.

7 https://www.npr.org/2022/08/18/1117704991/serena-williams-ventures-venture-capital-firms