The Spirit’s Sensual Doors

I was about to scribble a post about the importance of sensing life with our bodies rather than our minds. I decided to first pop over to a blog or two. At Songs of Unforgetting, I found a post called “When Matter Matters” about a similar subject. Synchronicity.

For the past 6 weeks I’ve been having a major love “affair”. (Hence the lack of consistent posting here.) Though I’m not in a full time relationship with anyone else, this feels like an affair because our interactions are so passionate, so intimate and intense. It’s more than a fling, but it probably won’t lead to a long term relationship. Yet I feel a strong desire to meld our bodies together and become one physical entity.

There are so many subtle sensations going on in our bodies all the time. Acknowledging them can take time, often accomplishes little except the experience itself, and can become addictive for their primary nature. Though most religions disdain sensuality for its pitfalls, the sensuous stimulation of our bodies holds incredible treasures. True, those same desires can torture us with yearning when the stimulation ceases; they can rage into our conscious thoughts until we lose both mind and body trying to obtain an unfulfillable desire. But, like any other gift, there are two sides to how it may be used.

No matter how much philosophy or spirituality you study or apply in your life, you are primarily a sensual creature. Aldous Huxley hit the nail on the head with the title to his book, “The Doors of Perception”, the five “doors” being the senses. If someone exists sans any senses, they are not living. Spirituality cannot save someone who does not exist.

Taste brings us to the joy of food, or the disaster of gluttony. Smell stimulates deep memories and emotions, and is under-rated as a tool for living fully. I can sit outside during a breezy Summer day and experience dozens of smells. It accomplishes nothing, but fills out life. Hearing brings us to music, with its fountains of meaning and feeling. As a musician I sometimes forget how much my personality has been formed by the both the tearful drama of Puccini and the crystalline intellectual structures of Bach. (and each also has the attributes of the other; Puccini has structure and Bach has drama) For me, the timbre and intonation of someone’s voice can be as subtle and beautiful as music. Sight is primary to our existence. Besides its functional uses, it allows us to connect with the beauty of gardens, the power of art, the smile on a friend’s face. Touch is another under-appreciated tool for deepening our experience of the world. Sadly, most of us are touch starved. Descriptions of any of these will never replace their direct experience.

All five senses come together through intimate connections with another person. Taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch become vivid ties between our inner and outer selves. We can literally turn inside out and become defined by our interactions with the beloved. Naturally, this is playing with fire. Passionate intimacy is very, very addictive. Lives are often ruined over this kind of love. Yet it’s value is self-evident.

To the touch-starved person, skin to skin contact is like breathing air for the first time. The fire of touch cleans the soul, brings billions of cells to passionate awakening. It shows our bodies we are not alone. Different parts of the body hold different secrets. One of my favorites is the insides of joints: behind the knee, inside the elbow joint, behind the neck, inside the thighs.

The smells of the beloveds hair and skin imprints on the brain, never to be forgotten. Yet the memory of a smell is not enough. One cannot get enough fresh doses of the lover’s pheromone concoction. Again, the present moment expands to become whole countries of sensual delicacy. The vibrations of the lover’s cooing voice may unlock layers of stress and invite one to sink deeply into the present moment. Seeing the beloveds dreamy gray eyes, tomato red lips or wisps of nearly invisible hair on the earlobes is an exploration of uncharted worlds, territories which will one day fade into oblivion, yet which now careen perfectly into this reality through our own eyes, ears, nose. The salty taste of the other’s skin is unique recipe, yours to drink to satisfaction.

The goal of many spiritual practices is to overcome desire. Desire is dangerous if uncontrolled or unbalanced in one’s life. A monk may spend his life avoiding sensual attachment; yet, that solitary monk is sensually aware of his breathing, the air on his skin, them smells of the flowers nearby. We all occasionally succumb to the excesses of the senses. Should their potentially dangerous temptations make them off limits? Or should they be used as spiritual gifts, with great care and respect? I prefer the second choice.

The secret to balance is to avoid becoming attached to the pleasures of sensual stimulation. Detachment does not mean being cold or avoiding pleasure, just accepting that all this passes. Enjoy and let it pass.

Thinking Spiritually Outside the Self

One of the most difficult aspects of spiritual thinking, (thinking which reaches beyond the small, petty self) is grasping how that self is an illusion.

The real Self, with a capital “S”, is the whole world, for our skin is only a thin membrane connecting our inner “self” with our outer “Self”. Yet most of us live our lives basing decisions on that small, illusory sense of lonely, separate, finite existence. No spiritual practice is worth anything without this important premise in its teaching.

For now, I would like to explore how this idea affects our thinking about world problems. We, myself included, tend to be satisfied with accomplishing the tasks set before us to achieve our daily goals, ideally to obtain and maintain health, security, community, career, relaxation and some kind of spiritual practice.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself worn out after doing what’s necessary to maintain my life. I don’t like to face too many new tasks, or at least not ones which seem altruistic, reaching for some “unobtainable” or far distant goal. Yet we have no choice but to commit any extra time and resources to alleviating issues such as hunger, disease, genocide, or extreme poverty.

Of course, there are really no specific consequences to ignoring this truth. We can live our lives, as many do, striving only to better ourselves, regardless of how it affects others. Nothing really bad will happen to us, except we will be ignoring our most precious gift, our compassion, our conscience. After long enough, we forget what it feels like to feel for others. We can rationalize that it was just meant to be that way. Tough cookies. Perhaps this is why religion is still useful in a way. It keeps people guessing as to what their punishment will be if they don’t at least try to act toward some altruistic ideas.

We cannot claim to live fully conscious and ignore those issues on a daily basis. That would mean living in denial, a kind of zombie trance, an illusion of happiness. There’s a hollowness to this kind of living. Often, we try to fill this “hollow leg” with more things, more food, more business, new improved living, even a kind of endless searching for a spiritual practice which “fits” us.

Ultimately, the answer is simple. Take daily time to feel and nourish the deep pain of admitting how others suffer. This could be in the form of prayer or contemplation. There are specific practices in Buddhism which offer a structured building of compassion, starting with sending compassionate, loving thoughts to those you love, then to those you don’t love, then to strangers you know, and on to all sentient beings. It’s very healing.

Then, give what you can financially. Be really honest with yourself. Do you need that new CD? Can you spare that money for someone more needy?

When reading Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith, I was amazed to find out that secular societies, particularly those from Northern Europe, give by far the most generous support toward relieving the suffering known to exist in so much of the world. Food for thought.

Learning to Let

Learning is doing and letting. When we face fear, we learn. To learn we must let. We learn that to let we must trust. To trust we must believe. And so it goes, until we get to experience. When we experience, we find change; it begins to carry more weight. We can see things and admit they are absolutely new.

Sure, there are patterns, familiar repetitions, like spirals and swirls and hatcheted hounds-tooth patterns hovering over the surface of our experience. What I mean here is the raw, visceral newness of the moment, like opening a new box of Cheerios, or like watching a candle burn. Our contribution is our trust in letting it be perpetually new. It’s not necessarily pretty, but it’s magnetic in its truth.

Accepting and opening to everything can be daunting, terrifying even. But it can happen. It must happen to really live. And it needs to be acknowledged and practiced consciously.

Art and Life: Living Fully

Many personal growth sites on the Internet offer lots of advice on how to live better, be richer, be more successful. But few suggest habits and attitudes which enhance the personal, subjective quality of living, the sweetness of moment to moment existence.

For that I suggest taking time from a life of achieving great things to enjoying great things. Listen to arias from the best operas to learn how beautiful tragedy, love and death can sound.

I remember Tom Hanks’ character from the movie Philadelphia playing a recording of Maria Callas singing “La Mama Morta” from Andrea Chenier’s “Giordano”.

This is how the aria is described in the movie. “This is my favorite aria. This is Maria Callas. This is “Andrea Chenier”, Umberto Giordano. This is Madeleine. She’s saying how during the French Revolution, a mob set fire to her house, and her mother died… saving her. “Look, the place that cradled me is burning.” Can you hear the heartache in her voice? Can you feel it, Joe? In come the strings, and it changes everything. The music fills with a hope, and that’ll change again. Listen… listen…”I bring sorrow to those who love me.” Oh, that single cello! “It was during this sorrow that love came to me.” A voice filled with harmony. It says, “Live still, I am life. Heaven is in your eyes. Is everything around you just the blood and mud? I am divine. I am oblivion. I am the god… that comes down from the heavens, and makes of the Earth a heaven. I am love!… I am love.”

I cried along with everyone else in the theater when I saw this scene. I had not heard of the aria before. That scene made the movie, which was otherwise just a good movie about the politics of AIDS.

I like crying at movies, operas, plays. I feel cleansed. No self-help advice can do that for me.

Art is not entertainment, as many people mistakenly think. It’s meant to challenge our comfort zone, push us where we don’t normally go. Life is not just a problem to be solved. It is a lesson to be experienced, never completely learned.

Take time to learn from art, music and poetry. Art goes beyond just living well. It shows us how to live richly and fully.

Leaving in Parts

I feel like I’m leaving in parts; As I age, holes appear; wrinkles carve their canyons in my skin; eyes strain to sense details; mind clouds; cells struggle to replace themselves. Can I learn to see beyond the holes to something gained rather than lost? Does spirit automatically fill the emptiness?

There is a strange comfort in these holes, the loss of limbs, cells, parts. The stars still shine through them. And after all, “stardust” is what we are.

At the same time, there is an urgency to the fact that we will never know, cannot ever know what we really are. Spirituality is our attempt to create meaning out of that mystery.

If we see our lives as gardens, why then, do we clean and plant the garden when we know it will grow thick with weeds soon after? Or to use another metaphor, why do we clean our rooms when we know they will soon become messy with the entropy of living?

Can the true meaning of, or metaphor of, the garden be that it is something beyond, or further inside us, part of us still, either way?

Can gardening speak of a cure for the insanities of the world, murder, torture, war, famine, and the political and social webs which create and imprison beauty and freedom?

In the reflection of the puddle I see my tortured face, my stony frailty, monstrous melting glacier, shuddering scrawniness, dialed-in stupidity, creaturely, Gollemy.

Can the garden cure all that?

Yes. Out of the dirt I create myself, muddy, filthy, and beautiful. There will be no other like me or this moment.

No matter how down or weak you feel, cherish that uniqueness, all parts of it.

Meet me just beyond the garden gate, nowhere else.