Saturday, April 28, 2018

True Signs

        By March of 2018, I’d just about enjoyed enough of my first year of retirement doing nothing. Also we'd had about enough of winter. So we put together a plan, and on the 14th of that month we set out on the adventure to see our good friends who had moved away some three months earlier. In addition to spending time with them in Abiquiu, New Mexico, we’d arranged to see the Grand Canyon (where I took over 100 photos), Monument Valley (400+ photos!), and on the return trip planned to visit with family in Texas and South Carolina. As noted in the video,

we followed the advice of Robert Burns to change plans along the way: “The best laid schemes o' mice and men/ Gang aft agley” (from “To A Mouse”).
         Returning home, remembering the experiences, reviewing photos taken on the trip, and reading more about O’Keeffe, my reflections seemed to spiral around the Beloved, the soul, and b/Beauty. The capacity to enter the imaginal world happens as our soul takes form in the canyon beauties: the stone and earth formations, the trees and plants, as well as the creatures like the Evening Grosbeak that appeared in Bandelier National Monument Park. 
     Beauty in a dry, seemingly hostile environment, offers insight; perhaps more than thought, the experience and presence there feed more feeling for the fusion of jamal/jalal, the gentle inseparable from the hard, lovely interwoven with severe, both familiar and mystical, the One. It’s the rose, the lily, the cactus blooming that glows because it celebrates the union with the thorn, the skull, the dark mystery. Love draws the human into the divine. 
     Some changes we made to the planned itinerary can be attributed to the influence of an emerging fascination with the artist Georgia O’Keeffe. We found ourselves following the O’Keeffe track around Abiquiu, into Ghost Ranch, the White Place, Santa Fe, and Palo Duro Canyon. Back home, her art continued flowing from books such as: 
* Georgia O’Keeffe by Charles C. Eldredge  
“O’Keeffe’s work had, from her earliest days as a professional artist, elicited comments like ‘revelation.’ When Alfred Stieglitz first encountered her abstract drawings in 1916, he responded immediately to their power. As recalled by one witness to the moment, ‘They were a revelation to him.’ . . . William Fisher, for example, praised the ‘mystic and musical drawings,’ which he likened to religious ‘revelations’ in their ‘cosmic grandeur.’” (p. 13)
* Lovingly Georgia: The Complete Correspondence of Georgia O’Keeffe & Anita Pollitzer edited by Clive Giboire. 
“Not only is [O’Keeffe’s painting] a piece of consummate craftsmanship, but it likewise possesses that mysterious force, that hold upon the hidden soul which distinguishes important communications from the casual reports of the eye.” (quoting Lewis Mumford, p. 295)
* Georgia O’Keeffe by Georgia O’Keeffe
“It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint” (p. 88).
     I wonder how those of us who do not paint or dance or play music deal with clarifying “the intangible thing.” The feeling for that marks a true sign, doesn’t it? I believe it’s the guiding inspiration that draws each person to participate in his and her life as an artist.
     Perhaps for me it’s doing photography especially when further expressed in digital media to play out a theme. “True Signs” swirls together art, photography, music, and words to explore the way I reach for and into relationship with the divine.  In producing the digital media project, I found myself wondering if the purpose of an artist, at least for me in this moment, points toward revelation; an artist aims at developing consciousness that is increasingly sensitive to and responsive to signs of God. How might our knowing, our evolving consciousness, attune more poignantly into the inner and outer presence of the divine? 
     Tracking signs of God is scarcely a new thing. About a thousand years ago, Hamid al-Ghazali opens The Alchemy of Happiness: 
“Knowledge of self is the key to the knowledge of God, according to the saying: ‘He who knows himself knows God,’ and, as it is Written in the Koran [41:53], ‘We will show them Our signs in the world and in themselves, that the truth may be manifest to them’” (Trans. Claud Field, p. 17). 
The Study Quran links this passage with Q 51:20-21 “And upon the earth are signs for those possessing certainty, and within your souls…”
As happens often with the Qur’an, we hear echoes of other religious texts: 
* Psalm 19 on the handiwork of God: “day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge…”
* Isaiah 7:11, “Ask a sign for yourself from the LORD your God; make it deep as Sheol or high as heaven.”
* John 2:11, “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.”
* Matthew 16:3, “And in the morning, 'There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.' Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?’”
The mystic Rabia expressed her relationship with the divine presence:
 “O Lord, I have never listened to the sound of animals, or the movement of trees, or the murmur of water, or the song of birds, or the sitting in the shadows, or the sound of the wind, or the echo of thunder, but I have seen them as a sign of Your Oneness showing me that there is nothing like You.”   The Knower of Allah,  Rabia al-Adawiyya
Contemporary historian of religion, Diana Butler Bass, elaborates the importance of persons today shifting consciousness in order to realize the presence of the divine. 
“Roiling around the planet is a shifting conception of God…unmediated and local, animating the natural world and human activity in profoundly intimate ways…the personal, mystical, immediate, and intimate is emerging as the dominant way of engaging the divine. What was once reserved for a few saints has now become the quest of millions around the planet—to be able to touch, feel, and know God for one’s self.” (Grounded, p. 9)
“Where is God? . . . The grounded God is a God in relationship with space and time as the love that connects and creates all things, known in and with the world. . . . God is not above or beyond, but integral to the whole of creation, entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.” (Grounded, pp. 10, 25)
     In reading Grounded, in reflecting on O’Keeffe’s art, through meditating on sacred text, and while remembering the experiences of our journey, I’m wondering about the application of soil quality (ranging from fertile to depleted to rebuilt) in relation to the stuff a human has that is comparable to the soil, the earth. Is it helpful to consider our “ground” for consciousness in this sense? In addition to the purification process, there is also the rebuilding. Consciousness, like earth, has been decimated by erosion and poor management; but it’s reassuring to experience rebuilding it. Purified and rebuilt consciousness provides the ground for discerning the signs of God. Upon this fertile ground, God-consciousness can be built.

Blog entries referenced in the video include:
Divine Intoxication   (Jan 18, 2018)
The Cipher of a Mystery  (Sept 18, 2017)

The Infinite in One Step  (Feb 2, 2015)
The Sense You Were Born With  (July 7, 2012)

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Blessed Re-Emergent Spring

One week ago, the full blush of spring radiated from the azalea festival in Tyler, TX, highlighted by dogwoods, redbuds, wisteria, and even the smiling new-green deciduous trees. This we forfeited in driving northeast, returning home, still adorned in winter earth tones. And yet the loss finds redemption in allowing the feel of manifestation, the pre-budding, the reassurance of imagination, of intuitive knowing, of faith which is the evidence of the unseen. This tantalizingly slow emergence of spring feeds the soul.
“… opening of a window in the heart towards the unseen also takes place in conditions approaching those of prophetic inspiration, when intuitions spring up in the mind unconveyed through any sense-channel” (The Alchemy of Happiness, Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, Trans. Claud Field, pp. 19-20).

        Yesterday shuffling through the dusty leaves fallen last autumn, I almost stumble over the pale blooms of bloodroot. This modest forerunner of spring holds the miraculous powers of rejuvenation. Its long history of medicinal uses includes promises such as these:
“to prevent certain types of cancer, protect against infections, boost heart health, improve the appearance of the skin (including elimination of conditions like eczema), speed healing and recovery, increase circulation, and soothe the pain of migraines . . . a very powerful plant and can be dangerous (even toxic) if used incorrectly.”
         Returning from our trip to the Southwest, we also stopped in Athens, GA, hoping to find the coffee-house where Coleman Barks tapped the life-spring of Jalalu’ddin Rumi. In the one we found, they told us Coleman recently did a reading there but that his coffee shop was probably no longer around. Like spring flowers so soon gone from sight. But not gone, just waiting. Ghazali again:
“The first step to self-knowledge is to know that thou art composed of an outward shape, called the body, and an inward entity called the heart, or soul. . . In truth [the heart/soul] does not belong to the visible world, but to the invisible, and has come into this world as a traveller visits a foreign country for the sake of merchandise, and will presently return to its native land” (p. 18).
        Back home, I’m catching up on reading from Coleman’s Year with Rumi , one window into that invisible space and treasure. For April 6, he gives “Blessing”: “I want to be where/ your bare foot walks,// because maybe before you step,/ you will look at the ground./ I want that blessing.”

Friday, March 2, 2018

Using the Sacred Imagination

     As Facebook friends know, we get flashbacks: “x years ago…” For today, March 2, Facebook reminds me that I posted two years ago “The Treasure in Good Stories.” So in looking back, I’m reminded of the gift of culminating a career with a sense of purpose, of feeling a fit that comes with accepting limitations, letting go of external expectations, and living into closer harmony with destiny. The treasure in Good Stories, at least one focusing, comes in the first sentence of that post: “Good Stories entertain and engage Big Questions such as: Who am I? Why am I here? Where am I going?”
     Big questions like these don’t accept final answers. Instead, they offer direction and vitality for going farther, going further on. Good stories provide a schoolroom with always open doors for recess so that humans have room to continue growing up, even into retirement. They’re not so much for dispensing information as they are for opening imagination. Our imaginal capacities need developing as much, if not more, as do our ability to reason and to learn the scientific method.
     Having left the university, those years spent in Good Stories have opened now into more intense journey with imagination and further travels with the big questions. Just yesterday, I completed reading William Chittick’s Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al-‘Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity. The one before was James Morris’ Orientations and before that Morris’ The Reflective Heart: Discovering Spiritual Intelligence in Ibn ‘Arabi’s Meccan Illuminations. In it, Morris offers a connection with the bigger purpose of Good Stories:
one might say that his [Ibn ‘Arabi’s] method is one of using the sacred Imagination—in the sense of the archetypal images and stories provided by his own religious tradition—to awaken each reader’s individual spiritual imagination, to illuminate and reveal the recurrent ‘reflections’ of those scriptural likenesses in the ‘ever-renewed creation’ of his readers’ own unique spiritual experiences. (p. 161)
     I scarcely presume to select one passage from Chittick’s Imaginal Worlds to illustrate the illumination about imagination because the entire text wants to be included. The chapter “Death and the Afterlife” still draws my gratitude for better understanding God’s mercy, and the final section on the nature of belief adds hope for peace, both inner and in the USA.
     The world around us looks a mess. Our education system hasn’t proven to develop citizens who are capable of democratic governance. Of special concern are the failure to discern truth, bad judgment about character, and little evidence of love for self, others and the environment. In my view, part of the problem with our schooling comes from too much faith in reason and too much denial of imagination. Chittick explains how Ibn ‘Arabi asserts the importance and place of both reason and imagination:
imagination erases differences and unites, while reason discerns and separates. When people are left to their rational faculties, they tend to separate the Real from the cosmos and themselves. This leads to a loss of the vision of the divine presence in all things…[capacity with] imagination allows them to establish links and overcome difference. (p. 168)
There—I did finally select one passage, but doing so leaves a need to go back and re-read the many other pages with markers.  Let’s keep moving further into the imaginal worlds…

Monday, February 19, 2018

Love Memories in the Imaginal World

photo taken at Chincoteague, October 2016
Memories of loves who have passed on
whether within or beyond this world—
This matters little if God moves us…

It’s told as if God has two hands
ever molding Adam’s clay,
imparting breath…

The clay is our body,
the breath spirit. Each overlaps
tides of the soul

where happens the imaginal world.
Those memories trespass time
still refining love…

These notions come floating by 
1) as my sister remembers her son’s birthday who has passed on as has mine…
2) also while reflecting on Imaginal Worlds: Ibn al'Arabi and the Problem of Religious Diversity by William Chittick, particularly Chapter 7, “Death and the Afterlife,” with specific elaboration on the two hands, and with attention throughout to the situation of the soul, for example, "mercy will eventually prevail" (p. 115) . . .

3) and with echoes from Elizabeth Gray’s The Green Sea of Heaven on Hafiz’ ghazals, e.g.: “Adam was made from clay kneaded and formed with love by God’s own hand, and then given life by God’s breath. The angels were commanded by God to bow down to Adam, because unlike the angelic host, part of man’s nature is divine (that is, love). (Sura 15:29).” [p. 158 note 1 on Ghazal 29]

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Tracking on the Path of Attraction

In the account of his forest mandala for early February, David George Haskell focuses on the tracks of deer and their browsing on the emerging tips of winter vegetation. 

This week, the tracks in our woodlands have been quite visible due to the snowfall that has been covering the ground. In addition to the cloven marks of deer, padded footprints run alongside. In recent days, I sighted a coyote and possibly a bobcat. A grey house cat has also been prowling by, maybe from the barn or from neighbors, and bird prints abound. 
        My reading this week gains meaning when viewed in terms of tracking. In first passage through the books, some spot on almost every page or three attracted a marker. After reading, those fluorescent sticky notes made the tracks by which I returned to copy passages and to classify them into categories. Here’s the working set from James Winston Morris’ The Reflective Heart:

  • Bewilderment
  • Discernment
  • Face as symbol  Face of God    veil  cleaning   suffering
  • Friend of God
  • Heart   Tajalli
  • Imagination
  • Journey Voyage -ing
  • Meaning-Making  Self-Recognition   Spiritual Ascension of the Word
  • Secret
  • Spiritual Intelligence  Mahdi
  • Steward    Stewardship
  • Taste   Tasting
  • Tales   Story   Storytellling   Hagiography     Imagination
  • Teaching
  How is it that certain passages and terms emerge from the sea of words, like the young growth that attracts the browsing of deer? Haskell explains in length how a deer takes in the crucial parts that the body, the rumen, is especially receptive to and capable of absorbing. The deer discerns within the environment that which has life-giving power. Perhaps, again, it’s discernment, a term for the title of a key chapter in Morris’ book, that forges or finds a person’s unique pathway.
   As I wondered around this metaphor of tracks and tracking, the term himma came to mind. In attempting to follow the “path of attraction,” some markers or tracks would certainly be helpful because the world has many wolves, gingerbread houses, and givers of toxic apples. So many attractions distract or veil a person from the True Way; these tests range from ascetic to sensational. A tracker has to discern the fit for his or her particular fingerprint marking the Way, the track provided by the Source. In The Reflective Heart, Morris indexes only three pages specifically for himma, but one of them may be sufficient at this point. Translating Ibn ‘Arabi:
We empty our hearts of reflective thinking, and we sit together with the Real (al-Haqq) on the carpet of adab [appropriate courtesy] and spiritual attentiveness (muraqaba) and presence and readiness to receive whatever comes to us from Him—so that it is God who takes care of teaching us by means of unveiling and spiritual realization. So when they have focused their hearts and their spiritual aspirations (himam) on God and have truly taken refuge with Him—giving up any reliance on the claims of reflection and investigation and intellectual results—then their hearts are purified and open. Once they have this inner receptivity, God manifests Himself to them, teaching them and informing them through the direct vision of the inner meanings of those (obscure scriptural) words and reports, in a single instant…They limit (the meanings of these scriptural or prophetic expressions) to what (God) actually intended by them—even if that very same expression occurs in another report (with an entirely different intended meaning). (p. 61)
In her book on Hafiz, Elizabeth Green clarifies the meaning of himma: “‘high spiritual energy or ambition,’ spiritual power that enables an adept to attain higher planes of experience and understanding, and that enables the pir [spiritual guide] to protect his disciples” (p. 148, The Green Sea of Heaven). I’ve sometimes connected himma with an increased heartbeat or a sense of close attunement with purpose, the raison d’être. In Music of the Soul, Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id al-Jamal connects himma with a personal favorite:
“… you could say himma is like a horse and when the ‘arif (the knower of the truth) puts himself on this himma, he flies, travelling. Without himma, no one can walk. . . The knowing is himma.” (p. 285, note 11).
This tracking, this connection with himma, or with whatever mark one calls the trace of the True Way, cannot be underestimated. Rumi reminds us:
The Master said: There is one thing in this world which must never be forgotten. If you were to forget everything else, but did not forget that, then there would be no cause to worry; whereas if you performed and remembered and did not forget every single thing, but forgot that one thing, then you would have done nothing whatsoever. (p. 26, Discourses of Rumi, Trans. A.J. Arberry; See also, Coleman Barks for Feb 9, “The One Thing You Must Do” in A Year With Rumi and p. 21 in Say I Am You).

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Winter’s Invisibility Cloak

Our woods on January 30, 2018
For January 30, David George Haskell in The Forest Unseen, writes, “plant resurrection after a full surrender is so far removed from human experience…” (p. 22). And yet the Path of Attraction* calls to us humans, urging the full surrender of the ego-self. Instead of a contrast, I find that Haskell’s elaboration of the winter woods offers a helpful model for our development through wintry conditions.
   Haskell describes how most plants survive through freezing winter by moving the essential to the center: “Plants start their preparations several weeks ahead of the first freezes. They move DNA and other delicate structures to the centers of their cells” (p. 22). In similar fashion, in order to survive the freezing times that worldly life brings toward the soul, humans need to follow the example of the plants’ preparation. 
   Importantly, the testing times of winter demand the development of discernment. Purification of the human heart means discerning the individual’s spiritual DNA. Coleman Barks places a Rumi poem here in the midst of winter where it teaches us about the ability to discern true ecstacy: “There are thousands of wines/ that can take over our minds.// Don’t think all ecstasies are the same./ Jesus was lost in his love for God./ His donkey was drunk with barley.”** Yes, humans need the “fire” from wine in order to make our way through winters, but we have to choose the wine of spiritual ecstacy over the intoxications of pride, ambition, domination, as well as alcoholic drunkeness.
   If a human surrenders the ego, surviving the winter of life might be possible. Haskell’s elaboration of his woods in Shakerag Hollow offers helpful models for us. In addition to the way taken by perennials, he notes “a different path”: 
Leafcup herbs completed their short eighteen-month lives last fall and now stand dead, surrendered entirely to winter. They have sublimated into a new physical form, like snow passing into vapor. Like vapor, these new forms are invisible, but they surround me…seeds, waiting out winter…When spring sparks the mandela, the energy released will carry the whole forest, birds included, through another year. [p. 24]
   Haskell’s account stirs several themes worthy of meditation. For one, consider the value of going invisible. Of course we saw the power of the Invisibility Cloak for Harry Potter. Perhaps less apparent is the value of the quiet life somewhat protected from the storms of status, wealth, and winning. When we realize this, we have gratitude for not being seen, for not receiving the “merit” bonus, even for losing the world’s prestige. The authentic life of the individual soul has to be known in secret. 
        Or perhaps there are sightings or scents but only accessible to those prepared to receive them. The pathway toward God moves into the invisible, the inarticulate, the ineffable. I believe that human capacity for such movement develops, for example, when engaging Good Stories through increasing discernment of “resonance,” by discriminating the authentic, the holy. Although I’ve just discovered the book, I’m excited to open John Renard’s Friends of God where his Preface notes “when an author appears to have slipped off the straight path of ‘fact’ onto the mucky byways and quick sands of credulity” and going forward as “travelers in the realms of the religious imagination” guided as “smaller stories communicate the ineffable” (xiii-xiv). God’s light breaks through every instant but catching the rainbow spectrum takes special vision. These new forms wait out winter preparing to spark into spring.
* Path of Attraction is “code” for following God’s light, for the “Religion of Love,” perhaps even signaled by the code-word  resonance” that I use in Good Stories [clink on the resonance “label” at bottom of blog], and for continuing purification needed to track or to be drawn by the Source, the Truth… 

** From p. 40 for January 28 in A Year with Rumi, taken from Mathnawi IV, 2683ff. In the passage, Rumi warns us that these two “wines” (infidelity vs. true religion, line 2716; carnal soul vs. reason, line 2718) are “at war: take heed, take heed, and strive that the spiritual realities may prevail over the (sensual) forms” (line 2719, Nicholson’s translation).
In her notes for Hafiz’s ghazal 5, Elizabeth Gray comments on the symbol: “Wine has a rich array of meanings and resonances in Persian poetry, and is associated with light, illumination, and truth… The surface of the wine in the wine cup reveals the face of the Beloved, the reflection of one’s own face (which is a mirror of God as His creation, and therefore is Him)” (p. 147, The Green Sea of Heaven.)

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Human-Divine Harmony

Part 3 in the year-long series of looking at our woods through the lens of David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen. 
   Haskell’s entry for January 21 focuses on comparing chickadees’ survival in extremely cold conditions with humans’ coping through fire, clothing, and food storage. In contrast with species that evolve to accommodate nature, I wonder about humans’ role in shaping the environment. When Haskell strips his clothes to simulate the bird’s experience, within seconds his body starts to shut down and soon he would have become unconscious and dead. Instead he covers up with warm insulating clothes and returns to his toasty kitchen, fueled by burning wood, powered by petroleum, sun, wind, or nuclear energy. When is this thing we call “civilization” in harmony with all-our-relations and when not?
   In our woods from January 20-23 in 2018, snow was melting, then temperatures peaked at 60 degrees, about 20 above normal, followed by rain and overnight freezing. On the warm days, I was working up a good sweat removing invasive plants from our woodland. This thing called “civilization” is crazy-making, and then perhaps it also allows a place to find/receive God.
   Perhaps humans just have to fall; in other words, to learn harmony, we first mess things up. Most of the mess in our woods came in by humans who thought they knew better. For example, "bush honeysuckle”:
…first introduced into the United States in the mid to late 1800s from Europe and Asia for use as ornamentals, wildlife food and cover, and erosion control. . . [But] Honeysuckle out competes and shades out desirable native woodland species, and can form pure, dense thickets totally void of other vegetation. . . While honeysuckle fruit is abundant and rich in carbohydrates it lacks the high-fat and nutrient-rich content that most of our native plants provide migrating birds. Wherever invasive honeysuckle shrubs displace our native forest species there is a huge potential impact on these migrating bird populations due to the reduction in availability of native food sources. 
   Soon after we were adopted by these woods, the missing native trees along with our birds asked me to take care of a thicket. While doing this has produced buckets of sweat, effects of poison ivy, ticks, etc., it’s also brought the joy of stewardship and thus the presence of the Divine. Tending these woods and being tended by them: that’s a divine harmony. In my view, it’s allowed one of the “very special human doorways to true religious understanding…and finally as God’s true earthly ‘stand-ins’ or ‘Stewards...’” The passage comes from James Winston Morris’ forthcoming book, Openings:
"First, and most importantly, it is human Hearts (the Qur’anic qalb al-insān) that are the locus of true spiritual ‘Knowing’ (‘ilm) and of our awareness of God and Truth: that is, it is not simply our mind or intellect or passion. Hence the decisive practical importance, throughout the Nahj al-Balāgha, of Ali’s constant stress on the purification of our hearts, through inner surrender to the divine Will (taslīm), as the underlying spiritual purpose of the many divine commandments. Divine, inspired ‘Knowing,’ however it is outwardly acquired, can only be perceived as such by the Heart that has been ‘polished,’ emptied of this world’s distractions and attachments, and thereby opened up to the full significance and reality of the divine Word—and to the further rights and obligations (another dimension of the Arabic al-Haqq) flowing from that opening. 
     Second, the practically indispensable key to this human potential for religious Knowing is the real existence and efforts of a limited number of divinely guided individuals—again, not of particular books, rituals, doctrines or worldly institutions, none of which are even mentioned in this intimate, highly personal lesson. Ali refers here to those very special human doorways to true religious understanding by several profoundly significant Qur’anic expressions: the ‘divine Knowers’; the ‘Friends of God’ (awliyā’ Allāh); God’s ‘Proofs’ or ‘Clear Signs’ on Earth (hujja, bayyina); God’s ‘True Servants’ (‘ibād Allāh); and finally as God’s true earthly ‘stand-ins’ or ‘Stewards’ (khalīfat Allāh).” [reference to Qur’an 6:165]
   While Morris is not explicitly talking about tending woodlands, I find very helpful his elaboration of stewardship in the context of searching for the heart-space that connects the human with the divine. What a blessing it is to feel the peace, beauty, and harmony in mature woodlands.
Pileated Woodpecker…a keystone species in mature and old forest”