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The Metta Bhavana

I have found the Metta Bhavana practice to be extraordinarily grounding this week. Loving Kindness truly is a journey into the heart of our essential selves. I imagine the pool near my heart fill to brimming with the sweet essence of pink Lotus flowers. The pool is the Unmanifested. The petals represent the incarnation of the Manifest.

I love the beautiful, mellifluous and extremely peaceful Irish accent of the voice on the guided meditations. The voice of Bodhipaksa. His voice is very transportative and has a tangible quality that helps me to form peaceful mental images—especially of the friend he asks us to envision and wish well.

I am finding this practice of Metta Bhavana to be fortuitous and timely, particularly this week. I’m coping with sadness and disillusion caused by the thoughtless and selfish actions of someone close to me, and this practice gives me an opportunity to give myself gentle attention and refrain from creating an ego or victim identity around the event. I felt as though—even though my mind wandered quite a bit—I was able to be guided back to a place of peace and tranquility during the practice. The most useful methods for me included the dropping of emotions into the pool near my heart, and imagining the image of a dear friend. In the first instance I imagined a friend who has been in my life for more than 20 years and who has shown great compassion during this difficult incident in my life. The second time I practiced I envisioned my older brother, who has been deceased for more than 20 years. He was a soul who suffered greatly in life. Now that he is part of the Unmanifested again, however, I was able to wish him peace and freedom from suffering in his new form, just as I had during his actual life. It felt good to send out my love to these individuals. During this difficult time I miss my brother especially, and wish I could seek his counsel.

Some angry thoughts did pass through my mind, though. I had some hard thoughts toward the person I feel betrayed by. Even in the midst of these harsh thoughts, though, I was able to recognize that my criticism is a result of my feelings toward this person rather than about the person him or herself. In the middle of the fictional illusion that we are all separate, isolated beings, it is possible through this practice to tell oneself gently: “Oh yes, that’s just the mind making up stories to entertain itself again.”

Years ago I received some meditation guidance from a counselor who also happened to be a practicing Buddhist. At that time my mind fought mightily against meditation. I’ll always remember one thing she said during her guidance: “Don’t hesitate to watch the stick float by in the river. Just don’t invite it in for tea.” These words have taken on a profound significance over the years. I understand now that “tea” is the practice, and that we are gently encouraged to watch our thoughts rather than indulge them and give them a separate and distinct identity. When we detach from our thoughts—which often involve criticism and judgment—we also detach from the illusion of our separate identity from the world. I’d say I experience this profound truth as satori at this point, yet I am still grateful for those ephemeral moments of truth.

The Metta allows me to smile at the stick and say gently: “Ah, you rascal. No tea for you today. I indulged you enough yesterday, and the day before. I’ll see you later, my devilish friend. Namaste.”

The Raisin Experiment

Dried Grapes on the Vine, raisin, originally uploaded by Otto Phokus.

I tried the raisin experiment today as part of my meditation class. It was an interesting experiment for me because I’m not a big fan of raisins, particularly in food such as cookies. However, it occurred to me that I had once upon a time liked raisins, so I plucked one out of my trail mix and spent some time observing it.

Looking at its wrinkled, diminutive form I was reminded of the Wheel of Life. All things are born into life and eventually die. A raisin starts out as a grape, wizens in the sun prematurely into old age before being consumed (death) by a human. I like the fact that a raisin has no particular attachment either to its life or death, which is the type of evolution I hope occurs for me along the Buddhist path. The peaks and valleys of the raisin remind me of the journey of life–that is to say that life is always a voyage rather than a destination. The indentations seem like many small roads, each one insubstantial in itself. In harmony with one another, however, they become a directed arc or pathway.

Once I popped the raisin inside my mouth I made a point of feeling all of the grooves (or paths) with my tongue. They felt more pronounced than I thought they’d be, as though they had a firm, yet flexible purpose. My raisin also tasted salty; a consequence of having been in the bag of trail mix. Yet the flavor was not unpleasant. When I bit into the raisin it seemed to explode into a different form which was flavorful and pleasant. The pathways and roads were gone and had taken on a new life. After I swallowed it, the experiment and the raisin both were gone, but I was left with the temporal memory. I was reminded that all things are temporal and eventually fade away. I was immediately grateful that the experiment reminded me of one of the great tenants of Buddhism. We may enjoy every experience, but if we don’t become attached to it, we will experience something far more profound, which is the fullness of the moment.

Perhaps I spend too much time theorizing on life’s experiences. This is where I hope to evolve–into knowing without so much thinking. However, whenever I have an experience that reminds me of the Dharma I am profoundly grateful. Just as I am always grateful when I experience the joy of pure Being.

Namaste.

The Edge of the Desert

Tucumcari Mountain, originally uploaded by POsrUs.

He who loves with passion lives on the edge of the desert. –East Indian Proverb

The mountain rises like a vast ignoble specter in the sky. A broad tabletop mesa juts its ragged indentations every which way. A flat cleft has been shaved off the east side, exposing a dark pink patina. Its final tier stands like the misshapen top of a wedding cake. Below it the trail quickens into thick brown adobe dirt. Out near the highway the big rigs roll by in a cloud of diesel exhaust. Here, an ancient Prowler motor home inches up the road, there a tricked-out Lowe’s semi—splashed with glossy paint in a cornucopia of colors—idles past.

I drive as far as I dare on the deeply rutted roads before putting my ancient VW in park. The vista is a pastiche of brown and golden in the early October sun. The sun shines hot on my shoulders as my feet sweat and squeak in my plastic Crocs. A few pricklers insinuate their way under the soles and shoot up to stab the soft underbelly of my uncalloused feet. I trudge along the arroyo, hopping through the jagged high points. I am wearing summer Capris and a light sweater over my t-shirt. I remove the sweater and pause to swig a drink of water. Silence pulses around me. The sky is a medley of crystalline cornflower blue with its white spun-sugar coating of candyfloss clouds. It seems too perfect to be real. Its ethereal splendor is rudely punctuated only by the miles of crude barbed wire so ubiquitous in this country. The continuation of my walk is abruptly aborted by a green panel fence that warns me to go no farther. I turn around without protest and continue down the eastern path. From my peripheral vision I spy a fence opening. It opens onto a path that wends its way toward the broad jutting mesa and blue sea of expansive sky. I nod toward it with a smile and murmur “Oh yeah, I’ll be back.”

***

I’ve been asking for weeks if there’s anywhere to ride around here—that is to say, on horseback. My nearest horse-owning neighbor informs me that he’s lived in this town for ten years and has all but given up riding his tough-terrain capable Missouri Fox trotters despite owning nearly 40 acres of pasture land. The problem is, he can’t ride beyond it. Folks in agrarian Quay County, New Mexico are circumspect about giving others free rein of their land. It’s a “fence out state,” I’ve been told more than once.

“Boy, they sure like their fences around here,” my husband observes en route to the thriving metropolis of Clovis, a small city due south of here. Acre upon acre of brownish-green grazing pasture is fenced by sharp reams of wire. Barbed wire has an element of violence about it. The clotted little knots remind me of a pit bull’s snarl and the ensuing blood from its bite. The fence line continues on, ad infinitum, along this bumpy little washed-out road. There are no cattle to be seen, no dwellings, no water. Just mile upon mile of empty windy expanse and sparse grass. It is open, unfettered land. But it is jealously protected and fenced—every last little bit of it.

***

The man at the chamber of commerce greets me with a smile. His hair is snow white, his face darkened and creased with sun.

“I have an odd question for you,” I say. “Can you tell me if there is any public land available around here where people can ride their horses?”

“Well, some of these cowboys that come to town just ride right along 209,” he replies, considering.

It’s clear I’ve stumped him somehow.

“You mean right along the highway?” I ask.

“Yes, but there isn’t much traffic.”

All the same, it’s a highway. I don’t feel like taking my chances, even with my quiet, well-trained ranch horse.

“What about the mountain?” I ask. “I’ve heard it’s private but that it’s possible to get permission to ride there.”

“Oh yes,” he brightens. “You can ride up there. Just be sure to stay to the easterly side. It’s owned by three people, and the gentleman who owns the western side is—how should I put this? Well, he’s stingy. If you aren’t doing any work for him that’s free, he doesn’t want you up there.”

“But there’s a locked gate,” I remind him.

“Well, if you head in from Mountain Road, the gate is generally open,” he says. “And if it’s open, that means you can go on up.”

“Well, if you say so…”

“Have a good day,” he says kindly.

***

My friend swings the stock trailer in a wide arc. We unload the horses.

“Settle down, little missy,” he advises his mare.

My own mare snorts and observes her surroundings in her usual sensible, French Canadian fashion. She isn’t shod, and the terrain looks steep and rocky. But I’m riding with a farrier, and his horse isn’t shod either. I lead my horse over to a rock. I haven’t ridden in awhile and I’m not feeling limber. I’m not in the mood to “cowgirl up”—in other words, scramble into the stirrup from the ground.

“I can give you a leg up if you want,” my friend the farrier/cowboy suggests with some amusement.

“No, no, that’s okay,” I mumble, discarding my inflexible leather gloves on my mounting block rock.

I swing a leg up and spur my mare gently. My friend, who hasn’t ridden in over five years, looks at home on his sprightly Fox trotter.

The air is fresh and cool and the smell of sage is pungent. The sky is a herald of blue sea foam, awaiting our climb. I pause a moment to feel the weight of my stirrups, to let these sudden waves of homesickness wash over me. This homesickness of the past, of longing for this landscape I now inhabit. These raw elements of nature and the pristine tabletop of beauty above seem to await my long unfinished journey.

“You ready?” my friend asks.

I pause a moment, remembering the epigraph of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s novel, The Edge of Taos Desert.

“He who loves with passion lives on the edge of the desert.”

The desert. I am on the edge of it now, once and for all.

I turn to my companion and smile.

“I’m ready,” I say.

Forgiveness

Say A Prayer, originally uploaded by έŁέ¢τяøиί¢ έγέ.

When you hold resentment toward another, you are bound to that person or condition by an emotional link that is stronger than steel. Forgiveness is the only way to dissolve that link and get free. —Catherine Ponder

Lately, there has been a surfeit of movement in my life. A change of career for my husband, my son’s rite of passage into kindergarten, not to mention the sheer physical act of moving itself, which creates a life of its own. The movement is forward—through time, space and mental expansion. For most of my life I’ve thrived and survived on physical change; on the sweet uncertainty of a new home or horizon. I find any form of static to be dull and intractable as well as uselessly cyclical—in the same way a pestilent weed that has been pulled up by the roots by way of crude execution will ignore the writ and stubbornly spawn a new life for itself.

Within the movement of my life I have noted another form of stubborn static; one at least as toxic as the weed and perhaps more so. More so because it exists at the psychic level. It’s the nemesis of nearly every human save the very few who are truly evolved, and can only be described as the poisonous attachment to the corroded judgments within our minds. These judgments paralyze and constipate by the sheer force of their ugly intrusion into the landscape of our daily thoughts and best intentions. They rob us of our humanity and give credence to our grandiose illusion of separation and egoic righteousness. For myself, such attachment generally takes the form of righteous indignation and grudge-holding. A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, but a thorn is a thorn even when divorced from arbitrary semantics. To err is human, to forgive divine. And whoever said that holding on to resentment is like drinking a tall vial of poison and waiting for the other person to die was downright perspicacious. Resentment and the refusal to forgive are the landscape of ordinary poverty consciousness. Forgiveness is a human quality that lies beyond the ego, beyond the illusion of name and form. Yet in order to access it, one must first be cognizant of what forgiveness truly means. And not at the level of the mind, either.

Some time ago I felt greatly wronged by someone I considered to be a friend. I had gone to great and time-consuming lengths to help this person and—to my grandiose way of thinking anyway—improve their visibility in the world as well as their fortunes. I’d been in this position before and had ruefully dealt with the fall-out of my own bitter resentment for years to come. I thought I’d learned something from the past, that I’d finally acknowledged that the pendulum had swung too wildly in the direction of the person or persons I was helping. In the former case, the end result was that I’d felt used and unappreciated. This time around, I endeavored to take care of myself and make certain I was fairly compensated for my hard work.

“Make sure you get something for yourself this time,” my husband warned me.

He’d been a party to the fall-out, and was well aware of my tendency to immerse myself in the lives and needs of others to the exclusion of my own. I thought because I’d asked for remuneration I’d taken care of business. In the end, however, the hours of service proved long and arduous, and gobbled up far more time than I had anticipated. I felt little resentment at first, but when the party involved made the incredible remark that they might need remuneration from me, I concluded that s/he had not the slightest inkling of the huge time commitment I had made on his/her behalf. This was insulting enough, but when this individual followed up the remark by an action that I considered to be an enormous breach of appropriate professional conduct, I felt the cruel winds of thanklessness and heartlessness billow my already tattered sails. I began to fervently wish away the months of hard work that I now deemed completely wasted on an unfeeling ingrate and unworthy friend.  And I mourned the end of the friendship, which I now considered sullied and ruined.

The month following the incident was a truly terrible time for me, the more so because of the fierce anger, outrage and disgust I bore in my heart toward the person I felt so egregiously wronged by. All of the pain of the prior experience my husband had warned me about rose up in me. All at once I felt sickened and revolted by human nature and the accompanying insensitive stupidity of the human ego and its pathetic frailty. But no: the irony did not strike me at all. The frailty I pounced upon and condemned belonged entirely to the other person. In other words: their shortsightedness, their unfairness, and their callous, crude, unforgivable behavior. It never occurred to me that my own grudging self-righteousness said more about me than it did about them. Indeed, it never occurred to me that I was growing depressed due to the anger germinating inside of me.

Holding onto anger always feels sweet for a time, but after awhile, its cloying sweetness always degenerates into the bitter aftertaste of saccharine. How triumphant it felt to abhor my enemy (or, at the very least, their actions) in my mind. The thorn grew and sprouted. It created a wedge between the perpetrator (them) and the righteous victim (me), even though we never spoke of the incident. I would cut them out of my life and revile them for their arrogance and greed, I decided. And, as time went by and no formal apology for the bad behavior was forthcoming, my feelings of justification increased, as did my rage. I became stingy even in allocating this individual a space in my thoughts. They could go to hell and good riddance too. And furthermore, they would be eradicated from my life—completely.

There was only one problem. The Buddhist path is never easy, yet it is always simple. As the Dalai Lama so sweetly and succinctly proclaimed: “My religion is very simple. My religion is loving kindness.” All at once a light went off in my mean-spirited, carve-out-the-one-inch-of-square-space-for-this-terrible-horrible person-who-has-wronged-me infinitesimal human brain. Because suddenly, I was in defiance of my own religion. I was acting in a way so grossly at odds with the Buddhist Dharma that I scarcely recognized myself. I had stripped my friend—to whom I’d assigned the role of cheap melodrama villain—of any measure of humanity. And in doing so, I had unconsciously stripped my own.

Though I behaved in an outwardly dignified manner toward my friend and confronted the issue in a way that I deemed to be formal, polite and respectful , inside I was a seething shit pit of rage. My humanity had vanished, and I wasn’t feeling an ounce of charity or forgiveness.

One day I picked a card from a deck that resembles the Tarot, only it is presided over by a host of angelic messengers. The card spoke to human relationships and the way in which they are merely a mirror of our relationship to ourselves. As I held the card in my hand I was dumbfounded to read the following: “Whenever you feel that your needs are not being met by another person, you can be fairly sure that their needs are not being met by you.”

Say WHAT?

Yet as the days went on, a curious thing started to happen: I began to feel better. The terrible rage I had been holding on to suspended and finally lifted, like a dark cloud evaporating into the magic hour of a ripening night sky. As I looked back over the events of the previous weeks, I began very slowly, yet clearly, to understand how I had failed to meet this other person’s needs. At first my conclusions seemed almost irrational and ridiculous, but as I followed a long chain of events and logic, I was led to a wounded soul in need of my solace rather than unmitigated disdain.

When I think of this person now, I do so fondly. It is hard to believe I had felt such rancor before. It is indeed possible that we may have only one more interaction, or perhaps we will have many. Yet in the end, the words we humans exchange will always be less meaningful than the purity and kindness we express through the stillness of our open hearts.

This experience has reminded me of the triumph of the human spirit, and of the capacity of the human heart to forgive. Forgiveness, I understand at long last, never was (nor will it ever be) a grandiose gesture to be dispensed via a loud thunderclap from the heavens. It is merely the natural movement of the heart. It is the movement forward, the lifting of the static listlessness that says: I choose to live within the uncaused joy of the timeless moment. Because this experience was impermanent, as all things are impermanent, and I have chosen not to carry it with me.

I have chosen not to carry it with me on the journey Home.

A Lesson From Xenophon

From the Parthenon…, originally uploaded by sp!ros.

In order to work at the highest degree with a horse, that horse must trust us without reservations. Only then can the horse be free to offer its highest compliments to us as horsemen, and give of itself without fear. Xenophon

The chirping of birds is all that I hear on this damp, dew-drenched morning. The world seems new and fresh, full of vacancy yet rich with promise.

On such mornings I have the curious sensation of being reborn to myself, of regrouping after a squall at sea. Nothing has changed much in my inherent make-up as the years go on. I’m still that gregarious girl my parents raised, socially at ease in just about every situation. But in my heart of hearts, I’m an introvert who yearns for the heart of stillness, of silence. The peace of God. Gentle, unfettered mornings such as this one remind me of God’s heartbeat, which is my own heartbeat.

The last few weeks have been charged with so much energy, fraught with so much busy-ness. A three-day natural horsemanship clinic has hungrily devoured a week of my energy, and before that, months of my time and resources. For a Buddhist, the rewards of being of service to others is always the primary goal. So I try to keep my eye on the prize. I am reminded of this as I walk the path of the Dharma and cock my ear for its message. Yet somehow or other, despite being an astonishingly adept planner and orchestrator of external events, I never fail to lose myself in the process. The wind drops from my airy sails and I’m left either becalmed or cast adrift. Either way, I am saddened to be left so far from myself. My true nature calls for me, forsaken.

I had an epiphany this past week, as the half of me that is a steed ran bolting into the night. My astrological sign is Sagittarius. So it goes without saying that I’m half horse. But what horse am I, I’ve often wondered? I now realize that there was never any question. I’m an Arabian; gliding over miles of gilded sand. I drink the wind, a proud and willful creature who lives life on my own terms, and of my own free design. I am highly sensitive, highly strung, highly tuned. But gentle in the right hands.

***

He hits her hard in the neck with a stick as she flies past him on the line. The wounded look in her kind eye is one of shock, disbelief and mistrust. Her head comes up, the nostrils flare. I feel the lightening rise within her. The injustice. He thinks he’s getting her to “come about” as he pulls her across, but instead she jibes. The boom careens wildly, without direction. Without purpose. A thing of violence, suspended in space. She has no anchor to her world nor to the native sand beneath her feet. She feels rudderless, and so do I.

“Do you want the truth?” he asks me bluntly. I really don’t, but he gives me his version of it anyway. “Your horse is spoiled. She’s used to ruling the roost.”

I look at him in disbelief, uncomprehending. I see the fear on her face, her lack of trust in him. I watch how he has driven her demons, how he has judged her without first bothering to earn her respect. Without pausing to peer into her noble heart. She paws the trailer with a foot. She is offended, but he is indifferent. He is asking the wrong question, but persists in his interrogation nevertheless. She pleads the fifth. She snorts and backs up. And sends me a clear message. Because I have always spoken her language.

“He can keep hitting me with that stick and playing this dumb game,” she tells me. “But until he shows me some respect, he’s not getting any from me.”

She gathers courage as she trots past him again and again.

The look of disgust on his face is palpable.

The look of disgust on hers is even more palpable.

I shoot her a look that says, “Come on, just do what he asks.”

Her eyes flash. Her fear has turned to raw, unbridled anger. He may win the battle, but she will always win the war.

“He’s in my country now,” she replies. “So he damned well better learn to speak my language. Otherwise he can stand there with that stick and rope all day long. All year long, if he wants. Go on cowboy, hit me again. One more time. The difference between you and me is that I know how to survive in the desert without water. You don’t.”

***

He wears an 1930s-style jockey cap. His salt and pepper hair is cropped close, as is his beard. He walks with a stoop and his voice is raspy. The emphysema is deep in his lungs. But his eyes are like bright buttons that light up when he sees her. She is still in his presence.

“Don’t ever sell her,” he tells me quietly. “This is a once in a lifetime thing. She came to find you, and she’s the one. This is perfection right here.”

He lets her run free first, then puts her on the line. It is long and thick and soft. He lets it slide through his hands like butter, never holding it taut. She turns abruptly to the right and he flicks her gently on the rump with the coiled end and she glides left. She follows his lead like a gazelle.

“I’ll tell you which way to turn Sissy,” he tells her softly. “You just move those pretty little feet.”

Later, he stands behind her, clucking softly. His Arabian is already loaded and standing quietly, munching hay. She is bare-faced, without restraint. If she runs away, how will we catch her, I wonder? I look at his clap trap, two-horse straight loader dubiously. I tell him I don’t think she’ll ever go into a trailer again, not after what happened last time. She is only three years old.

But he seems not to hear me. He clucks again and speaks to her in hushed tones that are unintelligible to me. Her ears prick up and she moves forward gracefully next to his horse. He pulls the butt bar across and closes the door.

“How’d you do that?” I ask in awe.

“I asked her respectfully and she decided to say yes,” he tells me curtly. But his eyes are twinkling. “Now are you going to stand there all day or are we going to go riding?

I guesstimate his age to be about 70. He says he’s owned some good Arabians, but none like her. He tells me a horse like mine could win the Tevis Cup. She has the right stuff. But listen. Remember to pause and listen to her, he instructs me sternly. Don’t leave her out there alone. Be her partner. Earn her trust. Then the two of you will be unstoppable.

He tells me about the time he rode 100 miles with a broken leg. How endurance rides have gotten so highfalutin and fancy, but in his day, a simple concoction of salt, water and lemon constituted electrolytes. He’d down it before jumping astride.

“How’d you place in Tevis anyway?” I ask impulsively.

He is looking off at a distant platte, his feet balanced in the stirrups, his leg quiet. I admire the balance that has carried this frail but still great rider so many miles. I conclude either that he doesn’t hear me, or that my question isn’t important enough.

But after some time he answers.

“Well, the best I ever came in was second. I never could win that damned race.”

***

I watch from the window as the trailer pulls away. Her pretty, high, whinny fills my ears. The same whinny that persistently called until help came when a stablemate was cast in his stall. The same whinny that greeted my truck whenever I’d arrive at the boarding stable. Greeted it from inside the barn where there was no chance of seeing it, but perceived it anyway through highly attuned ears.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” people would tell me. “That horse loves you.”

“It’s true,” I’d acknowledge. “But I love her more.”

***

There are days when I close my eyes to hear the even, graceful clip-clop of her hooves.

“Easy as you go,” I whisper.

Her lightening-fast trot slows imperceptibly. It is still fast, but no longer frenetic. I hold the reins slack and do not wear spurs. I ask with my voice and the slightest urging of my seat. She is so comfortable, her gaits so perfectly even, that I often forget I am riding an animal separate from myself. When we ride together we are as one. We are one with God.

***

I go through the trainers, one by one. Some are perplexed, others impatient.

“Well, she nearly rode like a Quarter Horse today,” one hardened cowgirl offers by way of backhanded praise.

I consider this woman’s champion cutting horse and his poky, lifeless walk. I am riding him today as she trains my horse. I stifle yawns as she talks on and on about the greatness of foundation Quarter Horses. I can’t help but notice that my horse keeps up with her QH’s lope at a very slow trot. That he sweats heavily after an hour’s ride, while my horse barely breaks a bead.  I wonder why the hell I’m paying this person good money to make rude, dismissive comments about my remarkable horse. A horse who could leave her old plug dead in the dust, and who, moreover, easily demonstrated the point not half an hour before. The cowgirl can’t ride her any better than I can, cutting champion or not. This time I smirk openly, willing her to dismount so I can shake myself loose of her witless camel and ride a real horse.

“Your ‘trainer’ couldn’t teach a dog to bark,” I hear the old man whisper in my ear. “When are you going to quit hiring these fools?”

***

Xenophon regards me expressionlessly from his ancient sculpture, the only likeness there seems to be of him. His expression is mute, unchanging.

“I’m an ancient Greek, dead for thousands of years,” he informs me laconically. “But let me guess: after 16 years, you’re still looking for the right horse trainer.”

It’s a statement, not a question.

“Yeah. I guess so,” I reply sheepishly.

“How did that guy with the stick work out for you? Raise any good welts?”

“Very funny,” I admonish him. “I come for advice and you mock me.”

“Well, I speak ancient Greek, same as your eccentric old grandfather, so you won’t be able to understand my advice anyway.”

“But we’re communicating now,” I plead.

“My point exactly. Do you speak Arabic?”

“No,” I say.

“That was actually a rhetorical question,” he says glibly. “What I mean is this: you talk to your horse and she talks to you, yes?”

“Yes,” I whisper. The tears fall down my cheeks.

“I’m not even alive anymore. Just a disembodied statue. And here I am, the original horse whisperer, for God’s sake. After a few thousand years, I’d really like to retire. But never mind. Here’s what I’d do if I were you: Take that stick and break it into several tiny pieces. It would make a lousy jousting rod anyway. Not enough torque. Next, take that weird-looking rope thing with the sailing knots off her head. Arabian horses find it insulting to be confined until after they’ve felt the sand under their feet. Next let her run around near you. You modern folk call it ‘at liberty,’ or some such thing. Arabians call it freedom. Ask her to move right and left. And don’t be too concerned with how she moves. Be concerned with the why. Ask with your voice. Artificial aids are useless if you can’t use the ones you were born with first. Just ask Socrates. Listen to her, then give her a chance to listen to you. Then you can start having a conversation. It doesn’t matter what you talk about. She just wants to hear the sound of your voice.”

“What about the old man?” I ask.

“What about him?”

“She listened to him. She loved him.”

“Of course she did. You see, when I see a truly great horse, I occasionally have to reincarnate. Not for the horse, but for the owner. The owners are always the ones who need the help. The horse is perfect as it is. Most horse people think entirely too much of themselves. You, on the other hand, don’t think nearly enough. By the way, you nearly killed me on that ride we went on in California, and I used to be the best rider in all of Greece. So you’re no slouch girl.”

“Thanks. Can I ask you something?”

“Go ahead.”

“What did she tell you when you loaded her for that ride?”

“She asked me why you keep hiring people who don’t speak her language to work with her. She wonders why you’re always translating back and forth when you’re the only one who understands her. Except for me, of course. I told her in time you’ll begin to understand that you were always the one with the right language. I asked her to be patient.”

“Really?”

“Yes, really. And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take a nap. You mortals are big talkers. Don’t you ever shut up? No wonder I always preferred horses.”

***

I release a silent, high whinny to my vibrant Arabian mare. It crosses the miles and the planes. And from somewhere deep within my soul, I hear its joyful and spirited reply.

(*Please note imaginative liberties taken with this entry. Ancient Greek equestrians did not joust. )

The God Within

Big Buddha – Head, originally uploaded by Caro Spark.

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are not like your Christ.Mahatma Gandhi

I don’t remember at what age I made the unilateral decision to abandon the notion of God as the ethereal benefactor up in the sky. I was past my teen years at least. I know because at the precocious age of twelve, I informed my devout Episcopalian parents that I was ready to be confirmed. And so began confirmation classes at St. John’s Anglican church in our small Nova Scotia town. I remember kneeling before the bishop as he blessed me and intoned prayers I have long since forgotten.

The cross I received as a confirmation gift from my aunt—also my godmother—is long gone. I now wear a gold Thai pendent with the image of the Buddha around my neck. I love the Buddhist religion and the central premise that attachment causes suffering. Even attachment to religion causes suffering. As Gandi so wisely remarked: “God has no religion.”

I was introduced to Eastern religions in college by my precocious boyfriend, an acid-dropping rebel whose high priest was either Timothy Leery or Ram Dass, depending on the day. He also read anything written by Richard Bach. I remember asking him about death once, about how he could be so glib about it. Death, according to church doctrine, is serious business. Wouldn’t he grieve horribly when his parents died? I wanted to know. Even thinking about my own parents’ demise scared me witless.

“No, I’ll be psyched for them,” he responded in his characteristic California surfer-dude aplomb.

“Why?” I demanded incredulously. (I mean, wasn’t this sacrilege?)

“Because it will mean they’ve gone onto a higher plane,” he responded nonchalantly.

It made no sense. What plane was that, I wondered? And how on earth did one reach it?

As I grew older, I became disenchanted with the rote repetition of The Apostles’ Creed which I had once prided myself on reciting whole, from memory (though I always categorically refused to say the part about “being unworthy enough to gather up the crumbs from under [thy] table.” After all, if this fellow was “the same God,” why on earth did I have to grovel after His crumbs?), the singing of hymns and the yawn-fest of sermons, I found I had gradually become a lapsed Episcopalian. The occasional Easter and Christmas would find me sitting in a pew or kneeling on the prayer bench, but more and more I felt like an empty, prayer-regurgitating robot. The words coming from my mouth were worse than rote rhetoric; they were hollow and empty.

At some point I ventured to ask myself: “What is it that I really believe? Because it sure as hell isn’t this.”

Evangelical Christians tend to bandy the word “believer” about as though it’s an exclusive club to which one must gain ritual entrance, usually by following an ornate set of increasingly complex (and to my mind, often inane) rules. If we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, why do so many people who call themselves Christians sanction the summary execution of death row inmates, the barbaric invasion of so-called “terrorist-harboring nations” (with the accompanying and heartless bloodshed of innocent civilians and children) and the cold-blooded, point blank murder of abortion doctors? Why is it that the highly misunderstood notion of “Christian Charity,” which was never sanctioned by Jesus to be an exclusive old boys’ club, is extended so narrowly and guarded so jealously? Why indeed, do so many Christians fear and revile those who appear so different—on the face of it at least—from themselves? The answers vary from sect to sect, but share a generic commonality. Jesus, as redeemer and savior, obviously must needs be a white Christian male with a rigid, matched set of white, Christian values. This is the prevailing view, at least, despite overwhelming historical evidence to the contrary. The historical Jesus was in fact an ancient Palestinian, and more than likely dark of skin. Chances are good that He more closely resembled Yasar Arafat than Glen Beck.

Unfortunately, the warped picture of Jesus’ historical person, along with other so-called “literal” interpretations of the bible tend to ring with a suspicious twinge of falseness and chicanery. Further, in message and deed, The Jesus of the New Testament more closely resembles Siddhartha Gautama, who proceeded him by two hundred years, then, say, Pat Robertson.

Similarly misunderstood is the profound meaning behind Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God.” These words extend far beyond the scope of a limited, ephemeral person. Indeed, because all separation is in fact an illusion, the actual message behind this psalm has been grossly distorted to a crass fraction of its profound, eternal meaning. God did not mean: “Be quiet, little insignificant serfs, and listen to my rattling thunder.”

Rather, God meant: “Only when You are still can You know that You are God. The God that resides within every human, animal and mineral. The God with whom We are all One. When the silence speaks and the stillness becomes profound, illusion dissolves and You will know God. You will know God as the breath-taking, uncaused joy within.”

For years my close friends had called me an “honorary Buddhist,” based on my philosophical nature and the wisdom I occasionally imparted. Although I hadn’t read much Buddhist philosophy, any time I encountered a wise koan (or profound, equivocal statement), I soon learned that Buddha nature played a role.

Years later, standing in the broiling heat of a North Indian day, I shook the hand of the most influential living Buddhist leader of this century. In that timeless, eternal moment, I experienced one of the most profound, beautiful shifts in consciousness I have ever felt in my life. There was no grandiosity about this man, nothing fabricated or false. He was the Dalai Lama, but also (as he has said many times himself) a diminutive Buddhist monk, slight of stature and unremarkable. A mere mortal who betrayed not the slightest trace of falseness or folly. Instead his face betrayed a joyous, infectious—childlike even—love of the world and the strangers he was greeting. This welling, overflowing joy came not from some force field beyond, beneath or below him. Instead, it came directly from the very depth of his soul.

In the moment the Dalai Lama grasped my hand—his smiling, overjoyed face looking in mine—I knew at last that God is not, nor has it ever been, something external. What seemed to emanate purely from him was in fact the answer of my own joyous soul, responding to the enlightened power of his presence. There was no exchange or words between us, no verbal communication of any kind. And yet I felt more powerfully moved by his sheer presence than by any words he could have uttered. And I knew this: God touches us, but we also touch God. God is the stillness of being, the simple uncaused joy within. We only perceive it as something outside ourselves because of our illusory belief in the nature of separation, the “minimal ser” or “infinitesimal being” that Pablo Neruda wrote of so eloquently.

If we cannot hear God, perhaps it is because we have our ear pressed up against the wrong door.

Before we can hope to open this door, we must first find its portal. And the secret of the portal is this: there is no separation between us and it. It waits for us patiently, throughout eternity.

It waits for the seeker to become the found.

Sky Mirror

Sky Mirror, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

The natural beauty of New Mexico gets a little magical boost from a good friend who says I don’t need to give him credit.

But I’ll give you a hint: He’s a better photographer than I am.

The Land of Enchantment: Glorious with or without enhancement.

Cowboy at Dusk

Cowboy at Dusk, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

Alone on the range with just his dog, he watches as the long, hot day wanes to dusk.

There’s no other life for a young cowpuncher.

Near Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Bareback Boy

Jon Luse, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

New Mexico’s number one bareback bronc rider, Jon Luse, takes a minute to pose for me at The Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico.

Mr. Luse was kind enough to take the time to give me some suggestions on where I might keep three horses in Tucumcari when I move here in August.

When I asked him why he chose bareback riding over other rodeo divisions, he answered matter-of-factly.

“Originally I wanted to do reining, but then I’d need a $30,000 horse. With saddle broncs, you need a fancy, expensive saddle. With bareback, you don’t need much gear,” he told me.

“But you’ve still got to stay on for eight seconds, don’t you?” I ask.

“That’s right ma’am,” he replies.

I love these polite western boys.

Tucumcari, New Mexico.

(where people are exceedingly helpful and friendly.)

The Happy Man

The Happy Man, originally uploaded by elefanterosado.

It is critical to serve others, to contribute actively to others’ well-being. I often tell practitioners that they should adopt the following principle: regarding one’s own personal needs, there should be as little involvement or obligation as possible. But regarding service to others, there should be as many involvements and obligations as possible. This should be the ideal of a spiritual person.

—Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. From His Holiness The Dalai Lama: In My Own Words, by Mary Craig.

I still remember that first glimpse of him as clearly as if I were walking into the experience this very moment. I remember how unbearably hot the day was in Northern India, how the sun beat down relentlessly upon me and countless other pilgrims. I was tired, too, from standing around and waiting. I was well aware that I was about to shake the hand of one of the most famous people in the world, but beyond the grasping desire to touch greatness, I had no coherent thought as to what I was doing or why I was doing it. Nor had I any cognizance of how the actual experience would reverberate long after its fleeting impermanence.

He stood at the top of grassy headland, surrounded by handlers. Some were monks like himself, dressed in yellow and crimson robes. One held a wide umbrella over his shorn head to protect him from the scorching sun. Others looked about nervously, as though willing the throng to behave in an orderly fashion. Yet these recollections are hazy and hardly pellucid. The energy behind the memory continues to be driven by that merry impish smile of the small and undistinguished monk who stood beneath the umbrella. No: smile doesn’t come close to describing the grin that split his face from ear to ear. Nor can any description of the encounter convey the experience of felt being when my turn came to shake his hand. For here an enlightened master was looking into the face of a complete stranger—that would be me—as though I was the most important person he had ever met. Even more amazingly: I knew I wasn’t dreaming. The feeling wasn’t contrived. I was shaking the hand of His Holiness The Dalai Lama. And in that moment—the only moment that is ultimately real—my presence was as sacred for him as his was for me.

I understand now that the experience was transformative because it was my first encounter with sustained presence. Indeed, thought was almost absent. I obviously formulated thoughts around the event to bring it into a realm of grandiosity, to further enhance and embellish and milk it for all it was worth. But when I return to the experience in the abstract—that is to say, when I feel it rather than think about it—I understand that I was in the force field of pure consciousness. The Dalai Lama was able to hold a sacred space for a very simple reason: he has no belief in hierarchies, borders, or separateness. His pervading compassion allows him to treat all members of the human family as members of his own.

Perhaps even more remarkable than the experience of meeting the Dalai Lama is the fact that wisdom exists. And here’s why: I could not have recognized the pervasive consciousness and presence of the Dalai Lama if, to some degree, that consciousness did not exist within myself. If it hadn’t, I would have left with a feeling of disappointment that I had wasted an entire day waiting in line for a five second, non-verbal audience with a most ordinary and unremarkable human being. Ordinary in the way that all great spirits who walk the earth ultimately are.

The Dalai Lama shakes my hand strongly and warmly. His smile is infectious, his eyes twinkling and merry. I wonder how many years of prayer and meditation it takes to arrive at that sanguine peacefulness, that relaxed and heightened awareness. I let go of his hand reluctantly. I release it for the next eager pilgrim to grasp and turn slowly back down the hill, far down the grassy headland.

The moment, like all things impermanent, is gone.

***

The Happy Man grins at me laconically from his small wooden pedestal atop my bureau. His round potbelly is more or less permanently bloated with gastronomical Presence. His satisfied smile tells me (perhaps) that he is pleased with his diminutive existence as an inanimate object. Yet I prefer to think that his inherent wisdom is greater than that. It seems to me that he is pleased because he can never be other than happy. He can never be other than present.

Several weeks after my fateful karmic collision with His Holiness The Dalai Lama, I stepped into a fabric and clothing store in the fabled pink city of Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan. For the first time since my arrival in India, I was attempting to buy something without the art of haggling and its ensuing theater, a true “every visit to India is only complete with this” rite of passage. I’m more than a little chagrined to admit that the sight of so many floors of goods, bolts of fabric, and hermetically packaged salwar kameezes overwhelmed me. I quickly retreated from the store and thought better of the whole idea.

Within moments an attractive and self-possessed young woman pulled up to the front of the department store on a motor scooter. She had an effortless sense of style and grace. She also happened to be wearing exactly the style and sort of salwar kameez I had been looking for so fruitlessly in the store a few minutes before.

Before I could approach her, she kindly came up to me and asked if she could be of assistance. She spoke excellent English, and, she informed me, several other Indian languages. When I explained my predicament she merely nodded and indicated that I should follow her. Within minutes she was in full command of the shop merchants (all of whom were male). She spoke to them rapidly in a language that I could not understand but which, apparently by magic, conjured what seemed like hundreds of specimens of the most beautiful silk salwar kameezes I had ever seen in my life. If I nodded my head even slightly she ordered the silks taken away, and vigorously nodded her head until new ones replaced them. Within an hour I was in possession of a most beautiful and treasured costume, one that far exceeded my expectations for any shopping excursion.

The swiftly moving, elegant young lady at last informed me that she had to depart. Before doing so, however, she made sure I had several business cards containing the full sum of her contact information—just in case she could ever be of service again. She also produced a small red item from her flowing clothes, which she pressed into my surprised hand. This, she explained with a smile, was her gift to me. As a Buddhist she hoped that “The Happy Man,” (as she called him) would give me sustaining comfort and support during my remaining travels in her country.

“The Happy Man is always happy,” she told me gently. “And for this reason you may find him a great help.”

I squeezed the precious and hard little statue in my hand as I watched her fade into the evening twilight on her motor scooter.

Only later did it occur to me that this young woman had not bought a single thing for herself in the clothing store. In fact, the only item she had purchased was The Happy Man, which turned out to be a gift for me. Moreover, she had spent an entire hour in the role of my personal shopping assistant. Although we had never met before, she had given me nothing less than her full and undivided presence from the time she had arrived at the department store until the time she left.

When I returned to the United States after my travels in India, the memories of the Dalai Lama standing under the umbrella and the young woman on the scooter began to gradually move farther and farther away from me. Indeed, as I resumed my western life and identity, they began to feel like dreams borne out of an exotic Shangri La. Until the day I came across The Happy Man, dusted him off, and placed him up on his pedestal. His smile remained unchanged. And it reminded me that even the most beautiful, transforming experiences are impermanent. Only the light shining through them is immortal.

Why, I used to wonder, does The Happy Man keep smiling day after day? One day I simply ventured to ask him.

“Go ahead and put me up on this pedestal if you must,” he replied, laughing. “But I have only one answer, just as I have only one smile. And what’s more, you already know what I have to say. Just this: Be here. Be now.”