Last week, I wrote “out loud” here that I would like to write a spiritual memoir.
As I’ve written in other posts, cancer has a way of focusing one’s attention on what really matters. Some of these posts may become parts of an eventual memoir. I’m writing, in a distinctively non-linear way, that which is most present for me right now, necessarily skipping over a lot of detail and context.
Here’s another installment. Then for next week, I have something different in mind.
By my early 20s, I was at a crossroads. One way led to continuing with a kind of disengaged spiritual life that was easy and predictable. Another way led toward abandoning spiritual practice – which I did for a decade — because the world is on fire. I was unable to synthesize the personal and spiritual with the political, and I had a partner who was urging me to become a full-time activist and let him take care of all our finances. (There’s a lot more to that story than what I’m mentioning right now.)
In the late 1970s, Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan had encouraged students in the Sufi Order to take up human rights work with Amnesty International. A few of us did just that. But soon, I was reading and understanding that it wasn’t just bad military generals killing and torturing people all over Latin America and elsewhere. It was our own government making that happen through its policies. By the time Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, I wanted to help stop the US war machine.
I left the Sufi Order in 1982 after a falling out with my teacher. She was a right-winger and thought Reagan was the cat’s meow. I had written her a letter noting Reagan’s role with Salvadoran death squads. She flew up to the bay area for an event. We were in a car with a friend, and she turned to me in the back seat and said three times: “I release you.” I didn’t even know she was angry; I learned from our friend that my letter had enraged her. She was twice my age, and she threw me overboard without discussion because I had criticized her president.
I wandered, spending the next decade and a half doing what I thought was useful, which was political work with the Left. I became a journalist and an expert on the Christian Right, went to graduate school in sociology, wrote for the independent press and published four books.
By the early 1990s, I very much wanted back onto the spiritual path. My partner opposed this. Though we had started out together in high school as spiritual seekers, he had become irrationally hostile to all things spiritual, psychological or even introspective. I had a magazine about Sufism that I hid in a filing cabinet and read only when he was gone.
Then in 1994, I did what I had to do: I started therapy to begin dealing with childhood abuse issues. I joined the group that had been founded by Murshid Samuel Lewis and which had split off from the Sufi Order in 1977.
Starting therapy and returning to the spiritual path, i.e. following my own heart and voice, not the partner’s, was the beginning of the end to our 24-year relationship.
In another part of the saga, to be told some other time, I spent another five years or so with the second Sufi group. During the unraveling of my relationship, the male Sufi teacher I became involved with turned out to be a flake and an emotional manipulator. When my relationship ended in 1998, so did my relationship with this so-called teacher. When I reported his abusive antics to the group leaders, they were at a loss as to what to do about it.
By then I was reading everything I could about Buddhism. Unlike in the 1970s, there was now an established Buddhist subculture. A lot of the Sufis I knew also practiced Buddhist meditation.
In 1999, in a state of deep grief over my divorce, my meditation suddenly went silent. I could no longer do Sufi practices with sound, and on the inside, my mind became non-verbal. I wondered what was going on.
About that time, I picked up a copy of Inquiring Mind journal and got the schedule for Spirit Rock Meditation Center. I started going there once or twice a month for day-long sittings with various teachers and realized that my practice had spontaneously shifted to the vipassana meditation taught there. In 2000 (the same year I started law school) I started a series of retreats lasting about a week at a time. I never dropped my Sufi practices altogether but my daily meditation practice was silent, focused on awareness of the breath, mindfulness and concentration. I studied and practiced Buddhism for about a decade.
What I learned was invaluable and not easily captured in words. I need to ponder how, in other writing, to express how the teachings of the Buddha helped me to grow up.
As I sat in retreat after retreat, over the years, my experience drifted away from the “bare attention” type of mindfulness taught at Spirit Rock. I was drawn into states of absorption and bliss, sometimes lasting days. Not all of the teachers were pleased when I reported this to them during the interviews they hold with each student while on retreat.
In 2008 and 2009, I was part of Spirit Rock’s “dedicated practitioners’ program.” It was billed as a grounding in the Theravadan tradition of Buddhism (Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are the other two major branches.) Yet much of what went on at the group retreats resembled 1970s style encounter group dynamics. To boot, one of the teachers used the gatherings to promote Obama’s presidential campaign. There was little awareness of the fact that retreats are not an appropriate political forum, and that not everyone there was a group-think Democrat. One woman confronted me outside the retreat dining hall and demanded to know why I wasn’t wearing an Obama button. (Answer: because this is a spiritual retreat and because I don’t support Obama.) The program was a huge disappointment.
At one east bay group meeting in the spring of 2009, the Obama-promoting teacher reviewed texts about mindfulness at the time of death. He then led us in a mindfulness practice, envisioning our own body in the process of dying, who we would be with at that moment, what our awareness would be.
To my surprise, my experience was not what the program called for. I had a classic Sufic experience of re-uniting with my spiritual guides who absorbed my consciousness into the One. When the meditation ended, we were supposed to break up into small groups and tell others what we had experienced. I kept mine to myself.
Pondering this experience later, I concluded that if, at the moment of death, I would practice prayer and meditation in the Sufi vein, why wasn’t I doing that now? This was a re-turning point in my shift back to practices from my youth. I became comfortable with the idea that my spirituality is syncretic, a blend of all that I have learned. It is not dependent on a teacher or a group or a book or any external factor.
In the fall of 2011 when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, all those years of meditation practice did not make me free from anxiety. In fact, in the two months between diagnosis and surgery to determine how bad the tumors were and what treatment I would need, I was in a constant state of fear.
Meditation does not take away one’s basic human emotions. It does not make one of God’s creatures less afraid of losing her life, her appearance, her business, everything.
It did no good when people said: just breathe. In fact, I found it patronizing.
One Buddhist acquaintance emailed me to say she was sure that my vipassana practice would be what I would rely on.
Actually, no, it was not.
In lieu of daily silent sitting meditation, I instead laid down with head phones and healing sound CDs and let my mind rest in a state below the verbal chatter about “what ifs.”
During the months before surgery and the many months of treatment, without reporting the details here, I received a number of clear assurances that no matter what was going to happen, that I was not alone and that I would always be cared for. I relied on no currently incarnated teacher, no book, no group. I relied on the many names of God, which had been etched onto my heart at an early age.
The quality I became most aware of is pointed to in a saying often repeated in Sufi circles, which I finally understood: “God is closer than the jugular vein.” It was the Nearness of the Divine Being that I now felt and knew.