Insights From Daily Life

 

 

Introduction

The Woman And The Bible 

The Hook On The Door

The Snow Gets Dirty 

Flies In The House

Forcing Me Off The Sidewalk  

Swerving Into My Path 

He Took My Place! 

The Pigeon's Flight    

Hanged Men, Happy Men

Big Truck, Little Car 

The Diabetic Cat 

The Spoiled View

The Golden Girls 

Half In, Half Out, The Story Of A Dead Cicada

 

 

Introduction

I remember, years ago, watching a kung fu movie in which the protagonist came to study the martial arts with a renowned group of masters in a temple of "fighting monks", hoping to learn the lethal skills that would turn him into a great fighter, so that he could avenge the death of his father at the hands of a ruthless warrior. But, after some time, the masters had still not taught him anything, only used him in the kitchen, all day long, day after day, to stir the contents of a huge pot with a heavy stick. Angry at what seemed to be all the time lost, feeling used, and let down, he, at last, confronted the masters, and demanded to know what kind of martial arts training was this? As it turns out, these grueling months in the kitchen had actually been a crucial part of his preparation. Given a staff and spear to fight with, it suddenly became clear that all the "useless" hours of stirring the pot were actually invaluable training, translating into the strength and stamina needed to wield these weapons effectively. All the time hidden away in the kitchen, away from the glamour and glory of military training, had actually laid the foundations of the warrior he had come to the monastery to become.

The idea transmitted by this movie is actually, believe it or not, very much a part of Zen Buddhism, a Chinese variation of the great Indian spiritual tradition ("Chinaís reaction to Buddhism," some called it), which perhaps found its most resonant homeland in ancient Japan, where it became intimately linked to such diverse worlds as that of the samurai, and the haiku artist. While it is not possible to define Zen, in a nutshell, nor is Zen without its own differences and divisions as regards the ways in which it may be approached and understood, it may be said, in general terms, that Zen emphasizes practicality, pragmatism, and involvement in the world, rather than loyalty to inflexible conceptions, immersion in outwardly spiritual tasks, and withdrawal "from the world" into purely religious communities or states of mind (which is not to deny the existence of Zen monasteries); that it promotes action (or non-action, as it may be), rather than formal ritual, and doctrine; and that it advocates "learning by doing", rather than "learning by studying." This being the case, it is not surprising that Zen places a great deal of emphasis upon daily life, for it is often out of the challenges, obstacles, opportunities and situations presented to us by daily life, that we acquire the raw material needed to achieve understanding, wisdom, and, finally, enlightenment. Rather than spending one morning a week in a church, or temple, the Zen practitionerís whole life is spent seeking and developing an intimate connection with the Universe, self, and others. In his life way, the sacred and mundane are mixed together, and from the most prosaic and seemingly unspiritual settings, great spiritual lessons may be extracted. The accomplished Zen practitioner may receive a sermon from looking at an ant, be raised to a new spiritual level by encountering a cruel and oppressive man, discover a divine element in garbage, or be "born again" by a single glimpse of the moon, drifting out from behind the clouds. Speaking of the Tao - that mighty, elusive concept which might mean "the Way", the "Essence of the Universe", the "indefinable Sacred Mystery behind and within all things" - which is what both the Taoist and Zen Buddhist seek to understand, though it cannot be explained - Mencius, the Chinese philosopher, said: "THE TAO IS NEAR AND PEOPLE SEEK IT FAR AWAY." Looking for it on the mountaintop, they miss it on the street, in the village, in the house, hidden within the fabric of their everyday life.

DT Suzuki writes: "The object of Zen training consists in making us realize that Zen is our daily experience and that it is not something put in from the outside." (Zen and Japanese Culture, p. 13.) Lewis Richmond writes: "So much of what passes for Ďordinaryí life is, when seen through different eyes not ordinary at all, but full of potential for spiritual learning." (Work as a Spiritual Practice: A Practical Buddhist Approach to Inner Growth & Satisfaction on the Job, p. 9.) "Mindfulness" - the practice of observing life, and relating to it with a certain level of awareness, rather than mentally disengaging from it, escaping either by numbness, or by abandoning the present to dwell in a future that has not yet arrived or in a past that is already gone, is essential for this potential to be realized. "If you are not fully present, everything will be like a dream," says Thich Nhat Hanh (The Heart of the Buddhaís Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation, p. 65.) Jack Kornfield illustrates the enlightening power of the mundane, and the fact that wisdom can be gained by using the life we have, without withdrawing to a spiritual sanctuary or going into a temple, by quoting Robert Fulghum, who realized he had been "a thirsty man looking for a drink and all the while standing knee-deep in a flowing stream." (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: How the Heart Grows Wise on the Spiritual Path, p.206.)

Since few of us in this "modern world" have the opportunity to drastically transform the exterior conditions of our lives, to find the "perfect circumstances" for carrying out our spiritual development - to dwell in the quiet of a mountain temple, amidst towering pines, or beside the cleansing waves of the sea, away from dirt, noise, violence, oppression, and struggle - it is inspiring for us to know that resources for our spiritual growth do exist, right where we are; and imperative that we do not neglect to use those resources. For the same reality which may serve as the raw material for our spiritual growth and deepening, may, if not properly observed and utilized - and if met with a hollow spirit - merely overwhelm us, crushing, corrupting, or blinding us. There is no such thing as "easy magic", and the magic, transformational power of the reality that surrounds us is no exception, requiring hard work, will, and heart in order to release its benefits.

One important point about the spiritual potential locked up inside the texture of our daily lives - YOU DO NOT HAVE TO BE A ZEN BUDDHIST IN ORDER TO ACCESS IT! I have introduced the subject with material drawn from Zen and Taoism, since these spiritual paths have very strongly emphasized the process. However, I believe that the technique of increasing oneís consciousness about what is going on in oneís daily life, both inside of one and outside of one, and using the insights and feelings that that awareness generates in order to deepen oneís spiritual nature, does not depend upon adherence to any theological doctrine, and can be effectively combined with any existing religion. You can be a Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Jew, Animist, Agnostic, etc. - and still turn this concept into a major asset for your life.

The following article, which is not really a single article, but rather, a framework for a number of mini-articles by means of which I hope to demonstrate the power everyday experience has for teaching us important spiritual lessons, ought to be considered as a "work in progress." It will grow organically (perhaps spilling onto other pages), as I live and learn, and come by new insights. And though I may not go on writing about them forever, the work described here will be never-ending.

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The Woman And The Bible

This incident made a huge impression on me, some years back. I was riding on the subway train in New York City, in a car in which there was standing room only. Every seat was taken, one of them occupied by a large, strong woman who was immersed in reading her Holy Bible. After a while, we reached our next stop, and the doors opened. Some old passengers left, while some new passengers came aboard. Among the new passengers was a man with a crutch and bandaged foot, who could barely keep his balance as the train doors closed, and the unstable, rolling ride resumed. He did manage to grasp one of the "straps" hanging down from the ceiling for the benefit of riders, and to hang on to it, though barely. I felt sorry that I did not have a seat to offer him. Well, of course, as fate would have it, he ended up standing right in front of the seated woman who was reading her Bible. I was surprised that no one offered to get up and give this crippled man their seat after witnessing the spectacle of his struggle to remain upright, but even more surprised that the woman who was reading her Bible only looked up for a moment, to observe him, before going back to her reading, as though everything was fine. In one dramatic flash, the true meaning of religion came to me - a spiritual essence, a human essence, a way of living and being which has nothing to do with forms, with pages, with books, with scripture, and everything to do with oneís actions in the world, and the way one lives oneís life. If we cannot carry the good words which we read in books, and which we claim to adhere to, into the world, then of what use are they? Religion with form, but without substance, is valueless. A hundred times over, I will take a man with heart, no matter what his religion, or whether he even has a religion, before I will take a man who can quote every chapter and verse of his holy book, yet lives in a selfish way. The impact of this incident has driven its lesson deep into my heart, and I pray that I will not falter when it comes to "practicing what I preach."

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The Hook On The Door

One day, I came out of a heavy storm of cold rain, with my winter coat waterlogged, far too wet to hang up in the closet. Having taken it off, I began to wonder where I could put it up to dry, in my tiny apartment, when all of a sudden I noticed a hook on the outside of one of my closet doors, which had been placed there for the express purpose of hanging clothes. I was utterly astonished - for honestly, in the several months that I had lived there, I had never once noticed it! The incident inspired me to write a poem, and in that poem is contained the lesson! (By the way, if youíve ever had a similar experience, donít think yourself "abnormal." It turns out that this phenomenon is actually quite common. To illustrate the point: many times, after marriages between US citizens and foreigners, the Immigration & Naturalization Service will interview the couple to make sure that they are really living together, and that the marriage is "legitimate", not just a ruse for gaining immigration "papers". Couples are frequently advised, by immigration lawyers, to refamiliarize themselves with their surroundings before coming to the interview - what kind of lights do they have in their apartment and where are they located, which way do they turn the key to get in the door, what color is their shower curtain?, etc., etc., as otherwise, even couples that have really been living together in the same apartment for many months may encounter blank spots in their knowledge, which could lead the INS to wrongly conclude that their marriage is a fake!) And now - to the poem - the poem about my remarkable discovery, and the even more remarkable blindness that led to it:

The Hook On The Door

The door has a hook on it!

A place to hang my coat!

In all the months I lived here,

I never noticed it before,

not even when I had

a giant wet coat

in my hands,

wondering what to do with it!

 

But now,

out of nowhere,

for no reason I can discover,

itís suddenly there:

the hook!

 

All those times

I circled, like an airplane in the fog,

unable to find a landing strip

for my coat, or my shirt,

the hook was there

- always there -

right in front of my face,

invisible

only because something else

was in my mind.

 

And I wonder -

how many other doors in the world -

doors of politics,

doors of economics,

doors of science,

doors of art,

doors of love -

have hooks to hang our coats on?

What is really out there

in the world,

waiting for us to discover it,

not behind a mountain,

not beneath a sea,

not generations of tears from now,

but right in front of our faces?

Today?!

This minute?!

 

Friends,

itís time to look at everything

anew!

To set your eyes free

and let them fly like angels

to the answers

that are everywhere!

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The Snow Gets Dirty

When the snow falls in New York City, it is a magic thing. For a moment, the world seem remade - somehow purified, beautified, turned into a work of art, not taking us away from the heart, but back to it. (Of course, for many the snow is an obstacle, a terrible burden and inconvenience. For me - perhaps because I do not have a car, and do not own a house with a driveway or a sidewalk to shovel - it has never been. Instead, it has always been like the re-creation of the earth. The remaking of the world into what it could be. A pure white fairy land of dreams.)

However, the beautiful snow does not stay beautiful for very long in the city. Within a matter of days, usually in only one, the pure white begins to take on shades of gray, then black, as the contamination, the pollution, the grime of the city begins to fall on it, to spoil it, to recapture it, and ruin it. Then there is only this dark, ugly residue of snow left, and sometimes pools of muddy water and slush.

Saddened by the decline of the snow, one day, a sudden insight flashed into my mind: that this process mirrors what happens to any great idea, any religion, any gift that is given to the world. At the moment of its birth, it comes down fresh, with amazing purity and beauty; it covers the earth, and seems to transform the world. Then, after it has been around for a while, the old ways that it sought to heal and to transform return, the purity is polluted, the whiteness is stolen away by the grime. Look at how the soul of so many of our great religions and beliefs, overpowering at their moment of birth, have been degraded and lost over time.

There is no snow whose beauty will last forever without being renewed. Every generation must have its own snowfall. Every day must have its own snowfall. What has been given to us by others will always be corrupted, if we do not give it to ourselves, again.

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Flies In The House

In many parts of the world, flies are everywhere. Swarming around the table, landing on your clothes and body, buzzing around you as you sleep. The following story would be incomprehensible in those parts, because how could anyone even try to get rid of them? But this story comes from our culture, in which flies are not only unwanted guests, but in which we usually have the ability, with our modern screens and windows, sanitation and climate, to keep them out of our homes. I had the following insight one day, while trying to shoo flies out of my apartment (through a window I had opened just for them), without having to kill them. (Usually, in my part of the country, if you canít get the flies to leave the house, you end up swatting them into oblivion.) Sad to say, the stubborn fellows did not understand my merciful intentions, and in no way cooperated. When I tried to drive them out of the window, they only succeeded in eluding my efforts, and flying back, deeper into the apartment that spelled doom for them. Some time after coming to the insight which this incident produced, I discovered that the very same insight had occurred to someone else I know; and since I saw it written down first, on her web site, I will direct you there. It is surely something for us all to think about! Maybe itís time to start listening to the divine guidance that we are given every day, in so many forms: a near-tragedy. Something that happens to someone else. A synchronicity. An opportunity. A friendís advice. All ways that God, and His angels, are trying to reach us, and help us, if we would only listenÖ http://home.att.net/~shengirl/page5.html

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Forcing Me Off The Sidewalk

One day I was walking down the sidewalk, when two people, walking side by side, approached from the opposite direction. The sidewalk was not wide enough for all of us to pass at once, and it did not occur to the two people, who were traveling together, to momentarily move into single file to leave me with room to pass. Instead, they kept walking together, taking up all the room, and forcing me to step off onto the wet and muddy ground, on the side of the walkway.

What happened? Was it that they were not alert? (Doesnít compassion generate alertness?) Or was it that they just didnít care? That they thought it was right for them to have the sidewalk all to themselves, and for someone else to step into the mud?

Of course, I felt angered by their callousness. And suddenly I realized that in this small incident, you could see the birth of poverty, war, racism, and a million other ills that are afflicting our planet. How so? Consider navigation. There is a small error: you are off course by only five degrees. On a very short trip, that may not make too much of a difference. But on a long journey, that mere five degrees may produce an error of hundreds of miles. You may end up in Portugal instead of England - or just fly on and on until you crash into the empty sea, instead of finding the shelter of Hawaii. In the same way, the actions of these people who hogged the sidewalk did little damage in the context of the world. Nothing more happened, than that one man was needlessly and unjustly forced off the walk into the mud. And yet, the attitude reflected by those who took all the sidewalk for themselves - the egotism and lack of consideration towards other human beings - once it is multiplied, by others who think that same way, and plugged into the political, economic, and social systems which shape our world, may be capable of producing awful disasters: the plight of the poor, rotting in a world filled with wealth that is not shared. The abuse and exploitation of others in order to accomplish oneís own goals. Acts of international theft - taking not a sidewalk, but the oil, coal, iron, diamonds, and uranium of the earth. And the violence and war which spring from the natural reactions against these transgressions, which my own heartís anger was a sign of.

The beautiful world we seek to live in does not exist beyond us, and cannot be reached by bypassing the way we live our daily lives. We cannot be thoughtless and cruel on the streets where we live, and expect to be spared the pain of strife and war. Our daily, private lives reflect the world, and help to generate it. If we want peace and justice in the world, we must begin by expressing these desires, and working to realize them on a small scale, during the course of our everyday existence. We must use our daily lives as training, to gain the discipline and sensitivity necessary to transform the earth. The United Nations cannot do this for us. Only we can do it.

Sometimes, itís true, we canít help but feel helpless in the face of international events, swept away by a world out of control. Perhaps, by beginning the war to "take back the streets" for peace and love, through our own actions, we can begin to recover a small part of the power that we feel we have lost. Then, our larger collective efforts to make a better world may not prove so hollow, or weak.

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Swerving Into My Path

A similar, but very different incident, occurred to me on another day. This time it was one man, walking down the sidewalk towards me. He had his half of the sidewalk, and I had mine, when all of a sudden, he swerved into my path, coming into my half of the sidewalk, headed straight towards me. This excited something primitive in my blood. It seemed like some kind of challenge, like "I am going to make you move out of my way" - a form of disrespect, or exerting power at my expense. Having some control over my primal responses, I moved to the other side of the walk, and let him take mine. Only after he had passed did I see that he had had a reason for moving into my half of the walk - at the spot at which he had swerved, a large patch of slippery ice left over from a previous storm remained on the walkway, and he could very easily have fallen down and been injured if he had attempted to cross over it. I realized his action had aroused a huge amount of anger and resentment in me, because I felt he was disrespecting me - but now, I realized that his action had actually not been aimed against me at all, and, in fact, had been the only logical and safe thing he could do. Surely, I would not have wanted to force him to walk over a dangerous ice patch, just so that I could territorially cling to my half of the sidewalk!

This incident reinforced my knowledge, that we should not always rush to judge other people and their actions, but seek, first, to understand what is going on in their heads, and what their motives are. (Of course, there are occasionally times when an action is so drastic and immediately threatening that one does not have an opportunity to do so.) Many times, what we feel is a direct affront or challenge is logical if we examine it from the othersí point of view, and understanding this, we can lower the anger that clouds our judgment, cease viewing it as a "personal issue", and find constructive ways of dealing with it.

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He Took My Place!

Another story about anger: I was used to going out of the warehouse where I used to work, to sit down on a nice, sunny step, and eat my lunch out in the fresh air. One day, I saw a man walking in the direction of the step, then sit down to take his own break-time there, smoke a cigarette, relax, read something. I felt a lot of anger. "That bastard, he took my place!" I thought. Only later, did I stop to think: Well, itís not like I was the owner of the step! Just like me, the "usurper" wanted to get out in the air, get away from his work site, relax for a while, and use the sun to offset the coldness of the winter day. Normal human desires. He didnít do anything morally wrong - in fact, he only did what I was trying to do myself!

Many times, our anger against others is unjust. We are angry at them, because they clutter the road, trying to go to the same place we are going. We are angry at them, because they bought the last of an item, which we wanted to buy. We are angry at them, because they are sitting in front of us at the theater. (They are just trying to see a movie like the rest of us, and they didnít build the seats - they didnít genetically engineer themselves to be giants, either. ) Why so much unjustified anger, against people who are not attacking us, or doing anything wrong?

This is an insight to remind us of the need to try a little harder to accommodate ourselves to some frustration in life, and to stop unjustly blaming and resenting others for inadequate reasons. Anger begets anger. If we unjustly express our anger at others, whether through an unnecessary comment, or honk of the horn, or push or shove, we are merely triggering their own anger, and raising the level of anger in our society, and world.

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The Pigeonís Flight

The eagle, the seagull, the Canadian goose - these are spectacular flying birds, birds of uncommon grace, whose flight is poetry in motion. The pigeon, by contrast, is the runt of the bird world, or so we New Yorkers have come to think. Years ago, Garcia Lorca noted them pecking at dirty puddles, in the streets of Manhattan. On a daily basis, we see them walking about on the sidewalk, in their awkward way, suddenly running and flapping their wings at the sight of food, which no one bird seems able to maintain control of. Instead, like inept football players, each one seizes a bread crumb, or pretzel crumb, in its beak, then, trying to run away from the others with it, or perhaps to swallow it (itís hard to tell whatís going on in the chaos), he inevitably fumbles it, whereupon a swarm of pursuers dives in to attempt a recovery. These pigeons are everywhere, most of the time scrounging for food on the ground - comical, absurd, petty, ridiculous, completely lacking in dignity - clowns with wings. And in some open-air stations, by the elevated tracks, you have to keep an eye out for them, to make sure they donít inadvertently bombard you with their excrement.

One day, I remember, I was walking down the street, when, suddenly, I saw a beautiful shape leaping from a high building, and spreading its wings, glide poetically across the wide street. What a moment of living art! Changing the focus of my eyes to get a better view of the sailing bird, maneuvering in perfect harmony with the wind through the canyon of buildings, I discovered, to my amazement, that it was a pigeon! I had thought such beauty could come only from seagulls or hawks, from geese gliding in for a landing, or perhaps from condors, high up among the snowbound peaks of the Andes. But - a pigeon!?

I realized, then, that our expectations, our stereotypes, often do a great injustice to the reality of others. There is more beauty in the "unbeautiful" than we imagine, more grace in the graceless, more value in the valueless. When we try to lock others up in our perception of them, we often end up denying ourselves the gifts that they could offer to us. Yes, even the pigeon is a thing of beauty! A wonder to behold! Donít judge the pigeon on the ground - look to find his greatness in his element, the sky. Look into the faces of those who surround you, and open yourself to the possibility that they may be more than you think they are. This is the lesson of the pigeonís flight.

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Happy Men, Hanged Men

Not long ago, I was feeling quite depressed and gloomy about the future - my own personal future, filled with the usual economic uncertainties and stresses, and our collective human future, threatened by war and terrorism, injustice and pain. When I approached the doors to my bank, most likely to withdraw some more money from my dwindling account, I happened to see a poster in which all that was visible were some legs and shoes, which were not touching the ground. It was part of a bank promotion, meant to show people leaping off of the ground with joy, due to the benefits they were deriving from some new account or investment. But when I saw it, the overwhelming first impression it made on me was that of something horrible: I imagined the legs and feet to belong to people who had just been hung! Instead of people jumping up into the air in happiness, I imagined cruelly executed people, dangling at the ends of ropes!

The lesson in this? That our moods and inner states often profoundly affect our perception and interpretation of reality. Seeing that picture through the prism of my own, personal sense of gloom, I did not discover the joy and hope it was attempting to transmit to me, but saw only its worst possibilities. I painted it with the shadows of my depression. In a similar way, many promising, uplifting, and beautiful things in the world, which could reinvigorate and reenergize us, are warded off by the sorrows and hurts we are already consumed by; just as many things which are neutral, and in our power to shape to our benefit, are, instead, left in their darkest form, and allowed to become new burdens and sorrows to us, weighing us down even more.

It is good to be aware of this tendency, and to make a special effort, whenever we are down, to break through the darkness that engulfs us, to find the light and life that are always available to us, on the other side of our perceptions.

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Big Truck, Little Car

In New York, we do not feel obliged to go to the corner in order to cross the street, we cross wherever and whenever we can. Is this what other parts of the country call jaywalking? Neither do we, as pedestrians, wait for traffic lights. If the light is green or red, it does not matter, what matters is the traffic. If youíve got time to cross, in between a gap in the oncoming vehicles, you go for it. In fact, one way we can tell tourists is by observing who just stands there on the corner when the light is red, but thereís time to cross, instead of lunging ahead to get to the other side.

Anyway, this insight is not really about the difference between New Yorkers and tourists. Itís about our perception of danger. One day, I suddenly realized, as I stood glued to the corner "like a tourist", unnaturally stopped by a red light, that the giant truck that was roaring down the street in my direction had actually been quite far away when I first spotted it, and that I could easily have crossed the street before it arrived at the intersection. In fact, I could have gone across the street, and come back again, before it arrived! What had stopped me? When I sometimes threw myself between the back of one car and the front of another, calmly, professionally, with expert timing, and without a second thought, what had held me back this time, like a tree with roots in the sidewalk, turning me into an embarrassment to myself?

The answer, of course, was the intimidating presence of the truck. Its huge size. Its powerful, loud engines. Its aggressive, dangerous aura of force, weight, and power. Although my eye could tell that its arrival was far away, affording me plenty of time to stroll leisurely across the street before it reached me, the threat of what it could do to me if it did hit me, clouded my judgment with apprehension, and froze me there, waiting for it to pass. I allowed its image, not its reality, to intimidate me, to dominate me, to steal away my clarity, and my sense of being in control, and, thereby, surrendered my control to it. Although I was not aware of my fear, at the time, fear was there, and somehow got into my eyes, taking away their ability to see.

The lesson is clear. We are often overwhelmed, diminished, and thwarted by things which do not have power over us, but which we let have power over us; by things which do not really threaten us, but which we allow ourselves to feel threatened by. Clarity, and contact with reality, are crucial to avoid becoming prisoners of appearances; victims of substanceless specters.

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The Diabetic Cat

At one time, my cat used to eat almost anything. If I had an egg, he would get some of the yolk. If I had turkey, he would get his share. The same with shrimp, milk, and tuna, which always elicited almost song-like notes of "meow" from his eager body, as he clamored about my feet, like a demonstrator, sometimes standing up on his two hind legs while imbedding the claws of his front legs into my pants, clinging to me, as though not to let me go until he was fully taken into account. Cheese of all kinds and even chick peas elicited similar pleas. Some people said that I had no boundaries with him, and that I did not treat him as I should, like a cat; but he was sweet, and whenever he wanted something, I loved to make him happy. Then, as time went on, I grew wiser. One year, he had a urinary tract infection, and I was informed by the vet that I needed to stop feeding him fish, and to change his diet to a new kind of food, which contained less magnesium and "ash." Later, still, he was diagnosed with diabetes, and then I had to drastically alter his diet, putting him on a special dry food formula meant to control his weight and to stabilize his metabolism, at the same time as I had to begin a disciplined regimen of daily insulin injections. These were not easy times for either of us. Frequently, he would come, meowing, to the table - whenever he heard a can open, or smelled a favorite treat from the past - and looking at me with his big, beautiful eyes, ask me to be allowed to be a "part of the family" again, the way he had always been. But now, I had to tell him NO. I gave up eating many things that I enjoyed, but which I knew might torment him, so that he would not suffer so much. Yet, even so, there were still many things I ate which he craved and which he came to me for, which I had to deny him, because I knew they would not be good for him. "Iím sorry," I said, heartbroken to deny him these precious bits of happiness, but forced to do so, in order to protect his fragile health.

It occurred to me, one day, as he looked up at me, meowing, asking, with his eyes, why he couldnít have the things he wanted, that he was very much like me. Looking down at him, I saw myself asking the Universe for all the things I wanted, yet did not receive. I saw myself crying constantly to God for His support; for His help in getting this job or that one; and always wishing for more money, and the peace that money can bring, on the side of the rat-race. Sometimes, I could not help but feel let down and abandoned by God, and then, feelings of bitterness and anger would come into my heart. I felt like a neglected child, whose parents donít love him. But looking at my diabetic cat, one day, a sudden insight came to me: that as I had to deny my cat what he so desperately wanted - because I knew more than him, and knew that what he wanted would not be good for him - so God, seeing more than I, might have to deny me many of the things I longed to have, in order to protect me: if not my body, my heart and soul, and the person I could be - who needed, perhaps, to be born out of the cocoon of sorrow, hardship, and disappointment - forces that no one would willingly choose to be shaped by, but also forces which no deep person can come into being without. Although I did not stop wanting the things I had wanted before, after this insight I began to blame God less for not getting them, and to accept - at least a little - Godís vision in the place of mine; and His love, disguised as my suffering.

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The Spoiled View

Another insight that comes from my beloved cat: one year, we moved into a new apartment, a tiny place that was afflicted with stifling heat in the summertime. For myself, I had always, before, used a fan (if anything) on hot days like this, rather than an air conditioner, in order to keep my electric bill down, and also out of some form of Spartan pride, and the desire not to become too dependent on technology and "luxuries." However, my cat, who was getting older in those days, and who was also sick, had never taken the heat very well, and it soon became apparent, in this small and airless new apartment of ours, as he sat around on the floor, lethargic, his mouth hanging wide open, that he wasnít going to make it through the summer if I did not take action, soon. Rescuing him one day with a cold bath, I went out the next to buy a little air conditioner, and promptly had it installed in one of the apartmentís few windows. Unfortunately, the only place where it could be placed happened to be right smack in the middle of the "best" window the apartment had, blocking out the view of the green trees in the courtyard below, and substituting that aesthetic and energizing scenery with the big, ugly, mechanical shape of the air conditioner. So much for the "room with a view." For a time, I sat around, depressed, thinking of how ugly the apartment had become. Less light, no view, just a tiny little room with an ugly air conditioner in the window.

But one day, looking at the air conditioner, I suddenly found my eyes beginning to look at it in another way. I saw its whitish gray, box-like form, itís dials for temperature and function, its slats for the cold air to come through, its accordion-like wings to keep the hot air out, the screws that helped to hold it into place, and suddenly I realized that this machine had helped to save my dear catís life. And instead of seeing it as an ugly, junk-like device which had blocked out the trees from my room, I allowed myself to see, in it, the beauty of the cat who I loved so much; his comfort and happiness, and my joy in having his friendship and company. The air conditioner had saved his life, and from then on, I began to see his life whenever I looked at it, and to perceive it as a gift, rather than as an obstruction.

This insight reminded me of how the world, objective as it may be, is at the same time, subjective - a creation of our perceptions and perspectives. Seeing something that once was ugly in a new way, I discovered its beauty, and the aesthetic well-being of my little apartment was recovered. In this way, my non-home once more became a home.

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The Golden Girls

For a brief period of time, I had the misfortune to work at the cash register of a miserable store, polluted by the energy of a tyrannical manager, who turned his own fears, anxieties, and lack of self-esteem into an asphyxiating form of tyranny that made the lives of his employees a living hell. How I hated my days working there, with the crushing weight of his arrogant power-trip sitting right on top of my need for money!

One small perk of working at the register, however, was that I was allowed to take out the gold dollar coins which featured Sacagawea, the beautiful American Indian maiden carrying her baby, whenever I found them, as long as I replaced them with a dollar bill. The store didnít really like the coins, which were bulkier and less convenient for them to handle, while for me, the coins were somehow magical, filled with a secret energy and beauty, that helped to take away my pain, and make me feel connected to life, again, and to a people who I cherished and loved. A people whose heart and vision of life was very different than the one that was running this store, and persecuting me.

One day, as was bound to happen, the boss of that store finally found an excuse to fire me. I hadnít been good material for his bullying, and his efforts to make me subservient or eager to please had only made me aloof. So he used his last bit of power, to take away my income and put me on the street. Months later, reminiscing about that horrible job, I thought: "What a waste of my time! How the hell did I ever make the mistake of going there, and even turning down other jobs to go there?" But then, suddenly, I caught sight of one of my "golden girls" on the shelf - one of the many Sacagawea coins that I saved from those days, which still exert a special form of healing on me. And I knew that I had gotten something worthwhile from that job, after all.

And I thought, so it is in everything we do. From every dark place we are forced to go, we are able to come back with a gift - a "golden coin", whether it is in the form of an idea, a thought, an insight, an experience, or something learned about the world or ourselves. Nothing is ever, truly, a total waste, a total lossÖ

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Half In, Half Out, The Story Of A Dead Cicada

Near the end of summer, I made an interesting and tragic discovery: tragic on a small scale it may be - but perhaps not quite so small as it seems.  It was the season of cicadas emerging from the earth to break out of their old shells, fill the world with the raucous mating music of their new selves, and perpetuate their species in a final moment of glory, before succumbing to the limits of their mortal energy, and to the cold hand of impending autumn.  Most of the time, during the cicada mating season, the sky above is filled with their noise; while old shells which once contained them, now split-open and discarded, cling to trees, the branches of bushes, and lie scattered about on the ground, testaments to the metamorphosis of these fascinating insects and to the near-completion of their journey.  One day, last summer, however, I came upon a dry shell with a dead cicada partially, but not fully, emerged from it.  Unlike the empty shells left behind by other cicadas as signs of their successful advance towards their biological destiny, this shell had never been fully transcended by its occupant, who could not completely escape from it, and therefore died half inside of it and half outside of it, a casualty of an incomplete journey. 

At the moment I saw him, I could not help but think of myself, and others like me, still trapped between two worlds - unable to live in the world we came from, which we have seen beyond, and can no longer be spiritually nourished by; yet still too fearful, or bound by habit, to break free, and enter the new one which our insights, and dissatisfaction, are pointing us towards.  Like a warning, clear as day, the dead cicada in his shell reminded me of the need to infuse our personal journeys with courage and determination, to give ourselves fully to the wisdom that life has given to us, lest we, too, end up stunted, and incomplete, unrealized shadows of who we could have been; betrayers of who we were meant to be.

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