Sunday, March 15, 2009

Weekend in New York City

This past weekend Ann and I were in New York City where we took in a Dvorak opera (Rusalka) with Standing Room Only tickets, visited her wonderful granddaughter Phoebe (who is enrolled in the New School for Social Services - Simon Lang Institute), had dinner with Phoebe and my equally wonderful niece Lillian, who is now deeply involved in the experimental, off-broadway theatre scene in New York, and is very bright, talented, personable, astute, and fun to be with.

Finally, we arranged to have lunch with my sister Sarah (Lillian's mother) and her son Tom, now a sophomore at Skidmore, majoring in Classics, and an equally bright, gracious, and engaging young man, who is planning next fall to enroll in the Advanced Studies in England program in Bath, with which Ann and I have both been involved for the past decade or so, both as board members and as participating professors.

Sarah herself has become a magnificently accomplished painter, specializing in vivid still-life studies she calls "small daily paintings" which she has posted on her own blog (

The only down side in this otherwise marvelous trip was my knees and hips, both of which were aching badly from all the ups and downs in the New York subways, and filling me with anxiety about whether I'll be able to manage climbing around the mountains of Tuscany this summer, when Ann and I go to Italy. Too late now, however--we're going. Still, the bad knees and hips--and the likelihood that eventually (sooner or later) I will need a hip replacement and more knee surgery to avoid ending up in a wheelchair--gave me the opportunity to grapple with the ever-present issue, for anyone about to enter his seventh decade, of Impermanence--the strong likelihood that, between now and when I finally get my ticket punched, I will not be able to do many of the things I would otherwise have liked to have done--like walking the Appalachian trail, cross-country skiing, or touring Europe on bicycle.

When such sobering thoughts afflict me, I often like to practice a useful "worst case" scenario: What would I do, how would I cope, if any of the worst things I could imagine came to pass--if I found myself wheelchair-bound for life, for example, or blind or deaf or afflicted with a painful terminal disease, or looking down the barrel of a gun pointed straight at get the picture.

And this is what I came up with: No matter what bad thing happens, to my body, to my consciousness, to those I love, or even to my city, country, or planet--as many bad things are inevitably going to afflict any or all of these, sooner or later, my first response, if I remember it, will be as follows:

Breathe - Observe - Let Go. (Repeating as often as necessary--then, when equanimity is re-established, follow by renewing these vows):

Be Well - Do Good Work - Keep in Touch.

Learn - Teach - Heal - Create.

With each passing day, I gain new and fresh insights into these injunctions, simply by contemplating them deeply in light of whatever wisdom I encounter along the way. The first triad--Breathe, Observe, Let Go--is directly from the Buddha (the Sutra on Breathing) and succinctly encapsulates the whole of the Dharma--all the rest is commentary. To wit:

By Breathing consciously, we stop thinking, reconnect body and mind, and thereby return to the Present moment. And the Present is all there is--both past and future are nothing but mental constructions that only cause us unnecessary anguish if we get caught up in regret or anxiety.

By Observing, we simultaneously embrace and detach ourselves from whatever it is we are observing--our own breath, the physical sensations in our body, our thoughts and preoccupations, or the things that draw our attention in the world around us. The paradox of embracing and detachment is crucial to this process of observing: we are accepting and acknowledging whatever it is that draws our attention, within or without--not pushing it away or repressing it. This equipoise between embrace and detachment is the centerpiece of our practice--it is what enables the final phase:

We Let Go of thoughts, feelings, perceptions, preoccupations, etc. only when we are ready to do so--we never push them away.

The beauty of this simple but essential practice is that each phase leads quite naturally to the next: By breathing consciously, we regain the equanimity that allows us to observe our own thoughts, feelings, and perceptions with both acceptance and detachment. And by simply observing, rather than identifying with these thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, we develop the ability to let go of them.

So we breathe in order to observe; we observe in order to let go, and we let go in order to breathe. That is the Practice in a nutshell.

May I, and all other living beings, cultivate the skill, no matter what happens, to restore our equanimity and compassion by breathing, observing, and letting go, so that we may all--no matter what happens--learn to be well, do good work, keep in touch, and learn, teach, heal, and create. Hos thelei ho theos. OM.