In the Swim: Musings on Meditation under Water

January 26th, 2015

1. Wendy’s “Water”

On May 24 last year, I went to the Steynberg gallery on Monterey St. to attend a concert by Shadowlands, a new local musical group consisting of Bob and Wendy Liepman and their collaborators Mark Davis and Karolyn Hausted. They were introducing songs they’d written in preparation for recording them on a CD to be released early in 2015. I’d made a contribution to their crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter because I admired Wendy’s dedication to feeding the Homeless and because I enjoyed her earlier songs, many of which seemed to me more like religious hymns than folk tunes.

Their first piece was the album’s title track, “Shadowlands,” a dark evocation of the mental condition we usually call depression, but which in earlier times was known as melancholia—a state associated not only with illness but also with deep thought, fertile creativity and spiritual awakening.

Next was a busy, nervous piece which began, “O restless mind you’re working overtime,/when you chase (thoughts) what do you hope to find?”— a rebuke of the annoying monkey mind that meditators try to quiet.

Then came a long anthem whose chorus repeats “Every worldly thing will evaporate”—an adaptation of the perennial poetic refrain, Ubi Sunt, or where have they gone?–and an explicit assertion of the first of Buddha’s four noble truths.

The song which affected me most that night was called “Water.” It was about a connection between swimming and meditation. Read the rest of this entry »

Brian Gavin, in memoriam

November 8th, 2014

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There are not many people in the world I feel close to, and Brian was one of them, even though my relationship with him was formalized and very brief.  Shortly before receiving the news about his death I was thinking about contacting him to talk about a noticeable falling off in my meditation practice during the last two weeks, partially due to a cold that kept me up at night and disrupted my early morning routine.

I thought of Brian as my personal teacher, since he conducted most of the sessions at the three-day retreat I attended last February and agreed to have regular phone consultations with me afterward. Those conversations were always serious but also punctuated by laughter and irony on both sides. During them I felt I had much to learn and nothing to hide. At one point he mentioned that he was looking forward to a long retreat in September with anticipation and some apprehension. That was typical of the frank way we communicated, despite the distance I felt from the variety of samatha experiences that qualified him as a teacher and that he described with such scientific precision.  A few months later we both agreed to forgo the conversations until something I needed to talk about came up. Now it’s too late.

But then again, maybe not, since he remains present to me often during my practice, repeating the assurance that if and when I find the time to attend a longer retreat, a door to the reality he knew would undoubtedly open for me.

 

Book review: The Bible in Shakespeare by Hannibal Hamlin

October 8th, 2014

[published in Renaisssance Quarterly, Fall 2014]

This book begins with the assertion that “no one has yet published a full-length critical study of Shakespeare’s practice of biblical allusion and the implications of biblical allusion for our understanding of the plays.” Its author is eminently qualified to remedy what he calls this “deficiency,” having published several books on aspects of biblical culture in Early Modern England and co-curated an exhibition celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Impressive in its learning and packed with original discoveries of biblical and extra-biblical Shakespearean references, the book is written in concise, lucid and lively prose. Its “argument” is incontrovertible: the Bible is a pervasive source and object of reference in Shakespeare’s plays. The recognition and contextual reframing of hundreds of biblical allusions was part of the experience of earlier audiences, whose familiarity with the Bible was guaranteed by their cultural environment. The book’s task is to restore such experience to the modern reader lacking this familiarity.

Part I, titled “ Shakespeare’s Allusive Practice and its Cultural and Historical Background” opens with a vast array of evidence for the saturation of Shakespeare’s culture with Biblical narratives, characters and language. Chapter 2 traces discourse about the Bible and Shakespeare from early editorial glosses through 19th century elevation as paired pillars of British Civilization to recent debates about Shakespeare’s religious beliefs. Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Friedman: November 18, 1942 – September 5, 2014

October 7th, 2014

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Michael made me feel secure in Lund when I felt most exposed.  There was something about his domineering figure, his booming voice, his grandiose self-confidence and his awe-inspiring talents as artist, writer and chef that made me feel protected, as if by the big brother I never had. Even when he told tales of disappointment in love or family or career or business–with a puzzled shrug of the shoulders and lift of the eyebrows–his presence seemed sheltering. Never mind that he rarely showed interest in what I was up to, either at home or abroad.

Perhaps I placed trust in Michael because we arrived in Lund at nearly the same time as refugee idealists groping for space to rebuild the world in accordance with our own fantasies, each of us in flight from the world of friends and family back home, but still longing for their admiration. Perhaps it was that the large tracts of land we owned (or rather owed) shared a corner in common, and that we were both concerned with property lines and subdivision potentials along with goat milk and chicken egg yields. Or that our two first children, Jonah and Josh, lived within a half hour’s walking distance and were best friends. Perhaps it was that we were both products of a strong liberal arts education that we expected to put to work in the bush, or that we self-identified as non-observant atheist Jews. Read the rest of this entry »