The World at Heart –

Ancestry

Recently someone prompted me to offer a brief answer to the question what I believe in: ‘I believe the poet St John of the Cross had a point in not speaking of God at all – and: Jesus’ stories do the same thing’*… Both are offering riddles that point deep into the paradox of often painful reality. – Insofar as I am referring to any religious canon, I only do so as a way of deep reading of real experience. The late Rabbi Lionel Blue had his own ironic way of saying the same thing: He does not read his life through religious stories but he reads the stories through his experience of Life – in his case gaining clarity in a Quaker Meeting he stumbled into in a state of being at odds with himself (on that day perhaps a bit more than usual), and came out –as I imagine him: Eyes wide open with clarity. – In my own case, it was a rare deep existential feminist psychodrama workshop where I was put in an impossible position – and came out brimming with Love for Life. The latter was probably at play in Lionel Blue’s case as well.

Lionel later found that he was able to practice what he learned from that experience in the Quaker Meeting best when – in the chapel of a Carmelite Monastery, while remaining a Jew and a Rabbi as well as a Humourist.

Myself, I found the clarity I needed to understand the experience and myself mostly in and through the work of one or two 20th century philosophers.[1]

Lionel and I agreed, in one brief conversation on two things: Feeling a bit overwhelmed with a Great Insight given to our respective neurotic selves and – what ultimately mattered was the attempt at living out of that paradox.

As it happens, for me, a generation younger than Lionel, sharing of my story now comes at a point where the whole world is literally in turmoil – looking for solutions, meaning and direction for the changes to come.

I need to be clear here from the start though: I have no guidance to offer. All I can offer is my story of finding there was through encounters a stable non-ground to be found at the bottomless pit of anxiety and abandonment, a ground that woke all the potential of love of the world in me.

As I needed to do 35 years ago, many people now feel they need to draw a new world map for themselves, if for other reasons. Yet, in common is us all that we may feel the structural societal changes and challenges ahead are too big to fathom.

Before I dive in and out of the matter I want to explore, please allow me to introduce to you the panel alongside Lionel Blue, representing my ancestry – a temporary line-up rather than a conclusive list:

Archimedes

Saddened as I was when I attended a week end retreat given by a Japanese Buddhist monk in the far east of Bavaria, the most Catholic region of Germany, a determination also began to grow in me: I would write non-Buddhist koans, in fact, I would one day, write my life story as one of koans.

I was saddened, because these young followers of the monk’s had traded their aversion against their Catholic upbringing – for what? They had adopted a new religion, but not opened their minds to life going on around them all along.

The other day, in my non-religious Zen group on zoom the leader of that session said at the end he hoped to be able to take the sense of width found in meditation to everyday life, today – and tomorrow. That spoke to me. That’s all there is, really.

And yet, heart and mind seem inclined to attach to what is felt to be good and obvious, so something akin to koan practice may be useful for all of us – solving the riddles of life to embrace paradoxes. Painfully small as it seems, part of my contribution to human consciousness may be to point out that there is no need to adopt Buddhism or any religion. Koans, willing to open our eyes are all around us, always. – The global pandemic, of course, has made this more obvious, yet again. Whether we look at the paradox of being all connected and all ordered to stay at home, the juxtaposition of economic and social, human interests or the ongoing globalisation of industry as opposed to local politics not understanding itself as part of a ecological whole – who can embrace those and develop progressive strategies to help a beautiful world survive? Yet, I argue, we all have a mystic inside us, that level of our consciousness that is willing and ready to embrace paradox – for the sake of a deeper love for life, to be shown in the mundane details of our lives. And each and every one of us may sense a calling to grab one little corner of the large web of social and cultural developments, a different one whole trusting that others will do the same at their corner. So, again, how does koan practice help?

Whether or not you have had a moment of aha like the one that had Archimedes run from the bath because he ‘got it’, in his case, if I remember correctly, the formula that describes how much water a body emerged in water pushes away (Eureka!). You will have had a moment of bliss at some point, perhaps even a moment of insight that seemed vital at the time, but may have faded over time.

What would it mean to strive for that moment like RS Thomas did for his Bright Field? If, reading that question even, you feel your brain is tying itself in knots – congratulations: You have entered a real-life koan, for practice.  And if you think ‘Aha’ – ‘I have got it’: Think again. Chances are, you only have a glimpse: Only once your whole body resonates with the presence of the answer – then you’ll know, you have ‘got it’. – You may not run ‘naked from the bath’ – but as in Archimedes’ case the body echoes the answer. The width of clarity.

And another thought before we get started: All of a life’s koan have a deeply personal meaning together with a vast and yet miniscule spiritual one. At the same time, they pervade the psychological emotional realm and the cultural sphere.  The author’s mapping-out cannot be more than a first draft – to be completed by readers’ experiences.

Maxim Gorki

As I recall, I frowned a bit inside when I heard a friend of mine with an extremely traumatic upbringing speak about the joy of finding her ‘tribe’.

No role model, no certainty apart from the one inside: When I was young, it left me helpless, furious and self-destructive at times and inclined to lose myself in comforts and offers of some sort of security or explanation… But when it came to the crunch, I always came back to the inner knowing of not knowing, with no more no less than an abstract image engrained somewhere inside of what to pursue, how to proceed, how to be. It goes with: There is a transformative depth to moving into the unknown, that is where meaning comes from. That IS meaning. THERE is meaning. For many years, when I felt really melancholic, I turned to Maxim Gorki’s autobiographical writing. It seemed knowing to me. That was many years before I learned that Gorki had been part of a group called Godseekers. I was not much surprised at that and I don’t think the knowledge added anything to the flavour I experienced when first taking refuge in his writing.

sleeping in the bakery basement

damp and dark –

knowing not what – and yet

Zora Neale Hurst

When I heard Jackie Kay, a couple of years ago, talk about writer Zora Neale Hurst, and how she did not mind when towards the end of her life she did not receive recognition ( if not now, than maybe later people would ‘get her’) – my heart leapt and I almost heard the words ‘living unconditionally’. And that is what I would like to be remembered for. Of course, Zora had her own history, context and intentions – but isn’t the depth of consciousness the African American writer is wrestling with similar to what the pioneering Jesuit was trying to work out through his mission?

Slowly, gradually, with many bumps and some leaps and bounds, I have come to call this certain uncertainty – faith. Anonymous faith. And begun to make my peace with it. As far as I am concerned, it can best be expressed through paradox – and least so by referring to a religious canon.

Danny M[2]

Perhaps I can speak of my tribe after all – all those connections of embodied experience that resonate with me, deeply.  I remember how deeply Danny affected me: Something strange happened after I met with this former social work client of mine in a café in the town he had moved to after discharge from a low secure unit.  He had told me about his daughter visiting him in prison, with her new baby – a mixed race child. I knew he had had in his alcoholic past made more than a few racist comments. And I held my breath as he continued: ‘You have no idea how that affected me’, as deeply moved as he clearly was. Now, after this meeting in the café, I sensed we would not meet again. Yet, there was something else holding me, as I was shaking in loneliness: Depth, I think it was – holding me. There I was, consoled, no – held by the depth beyond that loneliness, sitting in my car, after I had parted with that gentle giant of a man who was now finding his way in a new life, if scarred. As I am writing, I am sending all warmth I can in the hope that his life won’t be cut short by the side effects of meds that had, at best, much less healing effect than seeing his grandchild for the first time, while in prison.

It was only a moment

The gentle giant sharing

His eyes bright – still echoing 

Hugo Enomya Lassalle SJ

There I was, 5 years ago, sitting in my car, having left the meeting in the café meeting with and I could not fail to notice engulfing loneliness. And then, I almost hear a voice echoing deep, deep inside me: It is time you go deep – vaguely a sense perhaps as if at the other end of the earth, down-under, as it were, I would meet Lassalle, the  tiny giant of a Jesuit who had bravely pioneered dialogue with Zen Buddhism and had himself dug deep into the future of human consciousness beyond traditional religion, or rather perhaps I’d meet the essence of what he had been about, surviving the blast of Hiroshima as he had.

They talk of a miracle:

Nothing of that sort –

I was hit by the bomb and survived.[3]

James Baldwin

I played that scene for all that was in it,

for all that was in me, and

for all the coloured kids in the audience –

who held their breath, they really did,

it was the unmistakable silence

in which you and the audience

recreate each other –

and for the vanished little Leo,

and for my mother and father,

and all the hope and pain that were in me.

For the very first time, the very first time,

I realized the fabulous extent of my luck:

I could, I could, if I kept the faith,

transform my sorrow into life and joy.

I might live in pain and sorrow forever,

but if I kept the faith,

I would never be useless. If I kept the faith,

I could do for others what I felt had not been done for me,

and if I could do that,

if I could give, I could live.[4]

Here is a monologue by one of Baldwin’s literary characters, a fictional actor, thinking out loud, on stage.  I find in it two remarks where I expect readers might allow their mind to close while still thinking they’ve ‘got it’: First, some might say, this is not real, this is just an actor on  a ‘high’ – who could possibly hang their hat on that as real hope. Second, entering the scene a bit more, another might say: Leo is still overcompensating for his remaining sadness when he says he could live. And yet…

For years, I have tried and failed to return to apply psychodrama techniques in an educational context in Britain. I seemed to be at the wrong place at the wrong time always. Eventually, it dawned on me, this was in order to accept a new world view.

Play and not play,

No curtain, no hiding in the wings –

All Play.

I remember Baldwin’s tender features and presence from the film about his life – politely and intelligently rather than fiercely about the need to emigrate and racism. At the end of the film, as I remember it, a friend attending Jimmy’s dying hour with a group of friends, rather poetically ‘he took us with him and when we came back, he was gone.’.

 Audre Lorde

When I dare to be powerful –

to use my strength in the service of my vision,

then it becomes less and less important

whether I am afraid.[5]

I found her work as an African Lesbian, in my late twenties. Certainly I knew of her passionate work when I met a Doctor who was in her late stages of dealing with cancer herself. Working in a local book shop as I did, I sent the Doc a copy through our delivery driver. In return, I received a note saying:  Audre’s way of life (as an African American Lesbian) felt not familiar, but ‘in nights when I can’t sleep I turn to her and I find myself wide awake’.

I remember Audre from a photo as a middle-aged woman in front of a black board in a class room of sort, not living in Berlin or Switzerland where she went to access Rudolf Steiner-informed medical therapies for cancer.

Bruno Hussar

The personality of the founder of the pioneering village in Israel remains present in my heart through the little meditation concrete globe with is view over the land nearby – designed by himself, an engineer before he became a RC priest as a convert from secular Jewish roots. The clarity of the structure and the absence of any religious symbols – was there even a candle on the floor? – had me breathe a sigh of relief. I wanted to stay and help but part of me knew that was not possible. Only years later did I realise I had offered one example of the existential truth in the story about Jesus’ disciples who wanted to stay on the mountain, instead of continuing their journey. Bruno died a few months after I met him and later I read one of the villagers’ account on the occasion of an anniversary service: Bruno and his friends were nearly ready to give up and leave when finally the first people arrived for the project in its infancy – only they were not religious  – they were secular people who wanted to be part of the project, the eulogy ending ‘I think that was somehow Bruno’s intention all along’.

Basho

Like for many people, the 17th century Japanese poet hangs around in my consciousness through the splash a frog made. I love – and share – the longing I sense in his pilgrimage-like travels – he was not one to sit still, reciting Buddhist chants – he experienced awe in reality. It does not matter in 400 years nor in 4,000 years what concept you categorise the splash in – his wasn’t a nihilistic splash but one full of love for Life and awe.

An ancient pond

A frog jumps in –

The sound of water[6]

As I name people who have helped to give my sense of awe some direction, even beyond a personal or felt-sense encounter – I need to add Brechtian actress Therese Giehse who saw on the small screen in the 1970s and whose strong features I remember as those of an old woman who grumpily may have said those words to an interviewer who came to use them as the title of a book about her life: I Have Nothing to Say.[7]

Shape, structure and grounding has come much more recently from

–  Aspergic Professor, as he calls himself, -Andrew Basden:

We are Artists –

Life,

Our Medium[8]

There is no doubt: I empathise from the inside with Andrew Basden’s difficulties, his awkwardness. And like him, I eventually found a different way to communicate what was and is close to my heart – in one of the peer Psychodrama workshops: For seemingly trivial reasons (I had to leave a few minutes early to catch a train), I did not join in with a group activity but sat on the side lines, and found to my surprise I was not sad, but in awe – observing my colleagues acting-in, as it’s called in psychodrama: One of those moments that maintain an echo throughout my life and beyond.

Finally, for the time being, Matt Sanford’s insights provide, all of a sudden, colouring to a strand woven into the garment of my  becoming aware of everything I was conscious of learning from the age of 9: The transcendent bodily felt sense beyond trauma, that can turn insight and as Matt says ‘can change the world.’. No symbol, no image here, only flowing presence.

Matt’s trauma, a car accident as a teen, presents an eerie paradox for yet another inherited motto that affirms some of my outlook:

Better a break

In your career

Than in your spine[9]


[1] Karl Rahner and to a lesser degree Bernard Lonergan. They also happen to have been Jesuits.

[2] Name changed

[3] Hugo Enomya Lassalle SJ, quoted from memory here

[4] Fictional actor Leo Proudhammer in: James Baldwin, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been Gone, p.368

[5] Audre Lorde, see http://www.azquotes.com/quote/178927

[6] Quoted from memory.

[7] “Ich hab nichts zum Sagen”: Therese Giehses – Gespräche mit Monika Sperr, Bertelsmann, 1973

[8] Free after Andrew Basden, ibid

[9] Armin Mueller-Stahl, senior German actor, quoted from memory.

*This apophatic resonance I later found and recognised in JK Kadowaki SJ’s book, Zen and the Bible.

~ by Barbara S on May 13, 2021.

2 Responses to “The World at Heart –”

  1. had planned to publish this piece in sections, but alas, the unwieldy new editor tools made working on that so uncomfortable, that I decided against it.

  2. this piece is part of an autoethnography-work-in-progress of 60,000 words.

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