"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Leaping into the Irrational, Part I: Living Rightly, Thinking Wrongly

When I am tired and my mind has been beaten down by skull-crushing drudgery, faith feels impossible.  I back myself into mental corners and I do this by using reason.  But reason isn't necessarily the vehicle to peace of mind, nor is it a vehicle of faith.

I have just finished Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, a feat indeed while caring for twin babies.  I started reading it when they were infants, at night between feedings.  So nearly a year later, I have completed my journey with Tolstoy and his troop and it has been as satisfying as literature can be, when it is written by a master.  Years ago, I would have identified with the passionate, impetuous heroine, but now, my sympathy lies chiefly with Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin (a character based on Tolstoy himself).  Here's why: Levin struggles with his faith.

At the end of the novel, Levin is immersed in spiritual warfare and is "miserably divided against himself".  He experiences "fearful moments of horror".  Doubt is consistent, "growing weaker or stronger from time to time, but never leaving".  Levin was so near suicide, at times, that he "was afraid to go out with his gun for fear of shooting himself".

Now, Levin is an intelligent man, a landowner, a thinker.  He is compassionate and values the lives of the peasants living on his estate (the political goings-on between Russian gentry and peasant folk is a subplot in the novel).  As a thinker, he knows philosophy and science, "the indestructibility of matter, the law of the conservation of energy, evolution".  He knows theory's place and these are "very well for intellectual purposes".  It is daily life that has him stumped; how to live is the question.

Levin realizes that "reasoning had brought him to doubt".  When he acted, when he held himself to task and kept himself busy whether with the peasants or managing his household or keeping his bees, he was content.  It was the thinking that caused him to suffer.

Levin remembers how once, when he prayed, he felt holy.  He, an unbeliever.  This happened during his son's tumultuous birth.  At that moment he prostrated himself and prayed, he believed.  And yet, he could not extend that moment to "fit into the rest of his life".

He comes to a point when he can no longer tolerate his state of mind:

And he briefly went through, mentally, the whole course of his ideas during the last two years, the beginning of which was the clear confronting of death at the sight of his dear brother hopelessly ill.  

Then, for the first time, grasping that for every man, and himself too, there was nothing in store but suffering, death, and forgetfulness, he had made up his mind that life was impossible like that, and that he must either interpret life so that it would not present itself to him as the evil jest of some devil, or shoot himself.

It is not until a conversation with a peasant by the name of Fyodor that he has his ah -ha moment.  They converse about two landowners, one "only thinks of filling his belly" but the other "lives for his soul".  And Levin, desperate for spiritual advice, latches onto the idea of living for the soul, but he doesn't know how to do it.

And then he realizes that he was "living rightly, but thinking wrongly".  He had been, by his belief system and moral character, already living for his soul by loving.  And loving thy neighbor is not a rational thing.  Reason tends to support survival of the fittest and the satisfaction of desires; it is the antithesis of love.  So Levin learned that you couldn't reach love by reason, you must reach it by action, which he was already doing.

I was captivated by the statement "living rightly, but thinking wrongly" because that is exactly what I do.  I do the arduous soulwork of mothering while thinking that I am useless because I do not bring in enough money, or have not yet reached a reputable status, or am too old to be a mother of such young children.  Thinking wrongly is using reasoning to squash one's spirit.  Here are some other more prominent examples:

  • Science tells us the Big Bang and Evolution may very well be the reasons for existence.  There is no God, therefore ultimately I am uncared for and left to my own meager devices.  I will suffer, die and be nothing.

  • Life is an intricate network of processes that can be shut down like a computer; once it is over, it is over.  The afterlife is the invention of fear and religion is the opium of the masses.

  • I am lonely, unloved, and uncared for because of <insert anecdotal evidence>. 

These are examples of reasoning, a process by which statements are made and then backed up by either fact, theory, statistical or anecdotal evidence.  Reasoning is ordinarily a useful skill when it comes to certain scenarios, like choosing a car, for instance.  In other more philosophical, existential matters, it can sour pretty quickly.

Levin erupts into tears when he admits his belief in God.  He declares himself a changed man.  He supposes that the reality he knew before would now be different; that he would not feel hostile to or irritated by people.  But this isn't true.  Life continues to be life for Levin with all of its conflicts, disappointments, and hostilities.  He then reasons that his spiritual transformation was only a "mood".  But Levin knows intuitively that this is not the case.  Tolstoy compares life's vicissitudes and irritations to the bees that Levin cares for, how they "lasted only so long as he was among them" and "his spiritual peace was untouched within him".

I don't think I have yet experienced the profound realization regarding the existence of God that Levin experienced; I think these are reserved for non-believers and although I've had my moments of doubt and darkness, I don't believe I have ever fit the label of non-believer.  What I have realized, however, is that leaping into the irrational, be it through poetry, or prayer, or practicing loving kindness,  or just "loving thy neighbor" helps control or realign thinking wrongfully.  

The problem now is to remember this.


Monday, March 18, 2013

The Holy Geyser

I'm a Dickinson, but I am not only a Dickinson.  I am a Catholic, but I am not only a Catholic.  So now I am going to contradict myself.  I recently "returned" to the Catholic church because I wanted to baptize the babies.  I believe, now that I have a family, that this family needs religious structure.  I may have my private Emily Dickinson side, but there must be a vehicle to teach morals and conscience; kids won't understand an abstract spirituality.  They need stories.  So as I have been tooting on about private spirituality in this blog, I have secretly gone back to mass, for their sake.  I have debated whether the Catholic Church is the right choice and have reasoned this: as you get older and the world gets colder and stranger, familiarity becomes paramount.  Sure the Catholic church is frustrating in its patriarchal baloney; its hypocrisy regarding the sex scandals.  But we are all fallible here, on this planet, including the almighty church.  So I go to mass when I'm not doing my Emily Dickinson routine and I sit and stand and kneel and weep.  I don't know where the weeping is coming from; I suppose it has to do with the dead, or my palpable loneliness, or my desperation for something greater than myself.  The weeping is a warm gush of spirit that wants to burst out the top of my head like a holy geyser.  I want to contain it.  I don't want people to see me as I walk up to communion while they sing "One Bread, One Body".  I bite the inside of my cheek to stop it.  I look around and wonder if others have the holy geyser ready to burst through their heads; it doesn't seem so.  But then again, what do I know?  I'm not in their heads.  By the time I get to the priest and the host is raised up to my third eye, I have contained it and I am calm.  I go back to my seat and kneel and bow my head, try to look like everyone else.

Piers Morgan had Martin Sheen on his show to discuss the new pope and other Catholic issues.  Sheen had talked about how he had fallen away from the church in his twenties, but returned many years later after a trip to India.  He said he was awestruck at the poverty there.  He said he returned to the church because it was a commendable vehicle in caring for the poor.  That struck me, his saying that.  Because in this private spirituality of mine, there is no service.  I could put it in place, but it is infinitely more difficult than jumping on an already established bandwagon.  So I hope I come to know service and act, when the time is right, and I hope the church will help me do that.  And maybe this geyser of mine will be less likely to take my head off.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Honoring Your Inner Emily D.

My mother and I went to vespers at an Anglican Church last Sunday.  I had not eaten dinner yet and had a full day of errands and taking care of the kids beforehand.  I went because I felt I should for it was lent.  There was a small gathering of people in the church and there was a band singing songs.  I say band, but that somehow implies electric guitars or marching drums.  Really there were a few singers, an acoustic guitar player and a piano player and they were singing about God.  It was lovely, really.  There were people in the pews getting into it, raising up their hands and closing their eyes.  I was impressed by the music, but the people with the raised hands intimidated me.  Later, my mother told me, "that's how the spirit affects people", and I believe this to be true, but at the time, I was almost annoyed, as if they were putting on a show.  After the singing there was a Bible reading; it proceeded like a Bible study really, with the priest asking the audience questions.  We talked about how the devil took Christ up to a high place and showed him the cities of the world, telling him it could all be his if he would just get down on his knees and bow before him.  The priest asked us if we believed the devil was the ruler of the world and my mother raised her hand and said yes.  The priest asked her, "Why do you believe this?" and my mother said, "Just look at the world."  And everyone in the church laughed and nodded their heads.  "By empirical evidence," the priest added, who was, by his diction, well-educated.  I knew my mother didn't know what empirical meant and I almost leaned over to tell her, but the whole thing embarrassed me, her causing attention to us, the two people who didn't attend that particular church regularly.  Also, I know my mother is angry at the world for her frustrations and grief and she needed a scapegoat, thus the devil.  There was satisfaction in her face when she said raised her hand and said yes.  The truth is, I felt like the devil because I was anxious to leave; I hadn't eaten and I was hungry.  Besides, churches tend to make me anxious and I get more anxious, it seems on an empty stomach.  But she didn't want to leave and I didn't want to inconvenience her or make a scene.  It's ridiculous, how much I care about what people think of me.

I went to that church because I was curious about it and heard that it was a tight knit community; that they were a spiritual group.  I am searching for a community and I had high hopes for this one.  But when they broke out the Bible, I shut down.  I don't know why.  Perhaps it is because I can't get myself to take it literally.  It is a text of stories; I write stories, I know how they can become altered through the fictional tendencies of the mind.  I don't believe God put a hand up to stop these fictional tendencies.  I do believe there are some worthy allegories and parables, but many have almost become tiresome.  I am learning that I feel closer to God just saying a few words in my mind, not making sense of an allegory.  I'd rather reach God through my imagination than dogma, as Emily Dickinson did.  I've been teaching Dickinson in my Comp II class and I've felt this kinship with her.  This poem, in particular, reached me.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236)

By Emily Dickinson
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

So I told this to a friend one day, this conclusion I had reached; I also told her I felt guilty about it.  There is that old Christian belief that the devil is the one keeping you from God.  But that wasn't the case here.  The devil isn't keeping me from God if I don't feel comfortable in a church.  It just means that church isn't for me.  My friend responded, "Yes.  You have to feel entitled to your own life.  Not someone else's life."  And that made a lot of sense.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Eradicating the Nameless Dread, i.e. Spread the Peanut Butter

My mind, my God.  This is the mantra from this morning.  Last night I awoke to a queer feeling of nameless dread, as if I were awaiting a sentence of some kind.  My self cleaved; the logical side fled and in came a throng of worries about my personal health, my state of mind, and the world in general.  I wanted to puke.  I surmised the causes; perhaps it was that late evening cookie that packed a sugar power punch and fueled the panic.  Perhaps it was a day of non-stop to do.  What if something is wrong with my blood?  What if I am depressed?  What if the panic cannot be stopped?  What if I am having a nervous breakdown?  What if I can't sleep?  How am I to function and be a mother to my kids?  Do I have an ulcer?  What if I am like the shark who sees its stomach floating on the outside of itself and continuously eats it to put it back in place but to no avail, it pops right back out each time?  

My logical mind taps me on the shoulder.  You need to protect yourself.  You've got to stop taking everything to heart because your heart is over-stuffed.  The killing and raping of children, the torturing of animals, cancer-stricken friends, environmental cataclysms (did you hear about the sink hole in Florida that swallowed a man whole?), celebrity suicides.  What is the cause of this nameless dread, is it internal or external?  It is all of these things.  It is none of these things.

I took a pill.  It's a small, white pill, very friendly-looking.  I waited as the light brightened the windows, for it to dispel the onslaught of rapacious thoughts.  I relaxed.  I panicked.  I relaxed.  I panicked.  I got up, when downstairs and ate a carrot.  When I came back up, I peered inside at the twins and saw my little daughter sitting up in her crib.  I longed to hold her, so I went in.  She smiled and spoke jibberish.  Then I held her to me and breathed in her skin.  I felt love, the love she had for me and I calmed.  I put her back in her crib and went to sleep.

My therapist:  I think it was Kirkegaard who said you could sit around all day stricken with anxiety of what could happen to you, so you must protect yourself.  Smooth over this life.  It's the peanut butter theory.

Me:  When I panic and am anxious, I forget the peanut butter.

My therapist:  Open the cabinet and look at the jars!