Zen & the Arts - Field Notes

“We live in a world of theophanies…There are burning bushes all around you. Every tree is full of angels.”

– Macrina Wiederkehr, A Tree Full of Angels


I have felt lately as if I’m walking on the bottom of a river, and all the words and images of my life are up on the surface in the light where I can see them, but not quite reach them. From the surface, they seem to be separate fragments, floating, and there are so many of them. But from here I feel filaments trailing down from each one, crisscrossing into the deep of time and space and meaning…

Last week for a little while I sat by the bedside of a colleague and friend who was just diagnosed with Creutzfeld-Jakob disease. Six weeks ago, she was still her radiant self: writing, and seeing clients, immersed in a wide circle of friends and her spiritual community, with no hint of disease. Just a few months ago we had coffee and talked about a mutual friend and teacher who died so all-of-a-suddenly last winter. Now, from the outside, she seems like she is sleeping. Yet I know that on the inside her brain has filled with little holes, like a sponge. And I know that in a day or few, on the deeper inside still, she will have completely dissolved back into her radiant Self.

Last month, I phoned a friend to see if I could join him the next morning for a “bird-sit” — a pre-dawn meditation in the woods that he and some other friends have been doing, just sitting under the trees and listening as the birds wake up in the morning. When he answered he told me he was in New York. He had been called there because his twin brother had experienced some trouble breathing, then was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, and then had a stroke while in the hospital. The brother died less than a week later. They had just turned 41 this past winter.

A few months ago, a cheerful and energetic friend from synagogue was diagnosed with cancer in the gallbladder and liver, after having had many months of stomach pain, and after having lived through breast cancer nine years ago. After extensive surgery, she was set to undergo follow-up radiation treatment when a routine CT showed that the cancer had already come back and grown more tumors in her abdomen. She manages to be devastated, deeply accepting of whatever comes next, and entirely open to miracles, all at once. She was at services two Shabbats ago, and looked great; you couldn’t tell what was going on inside if you didn’t already know.


These stories aren’t connected, except that each one is so intense, so abrupt, so peculiar, with so much going on under the quiet surface. I think of something author Jack Ricchiuto wrote when describing an abrupt near-death experience of his own: “When we are conscious, we love all the stories.”

My sense of revelation these days is merely this: moments fished out from the stream of light.

At my synagogue we just celebrated the summer holy day of Shavuot, the day on which the people receive(d) the Ten Commandments (or “Utterances,” or “Principles,” or “Things”) at Mt. Sinai. Our rabbinic intern, Olivier, offered a traditional Shavuot night study session (though we didn’t quite manage to stay up till the birds started singing). In the dark we discussed the dance between Descent and Ascent, the Yin and the Yang of creation and awakening. In the story of Sinai, the people (who are the Eternal in manifest, multivarious form) go up the mountain to meet the Mystery, and the unmanifest Eternal comes down the mountain to meet us. “The universe wants this to happen,” Olivier said, “and it steps forth: God comes down.” And we (all of us aspects of God) go up. “But there is only so high we can go, while we live in bodies; God has to come down.” In our tradition, we also always descend; we don’t stay on the mountaintop. For as long as we live in human form, we come down and go up and come down. For our own selves and for each other. Maybe this is related to what the Buddhists call the Bodhisattva vow.

Later in the session we each drew a number from one to ten, which would be our “Utterance” or “Thing” to contemplate till Shavuot next year. I drew the number three, which is translated into “You shall not take the name of God in vain.”

My rabbi, Ted Falcon, teaches Thing Number Three in this way:
It is only on the surface level that we would perceive this to mean something as small as: “Don’t say ‘God’ as a swear word or curse.”
Under the surface, on the inside, with a deeper imagination, we remember the Self-name of God, the name that rumbles from the blazing bush in response to Moses’ wondering: “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh ~~ I AM as I AM.” And if the name of God is I AM, then who am I?
How can I take good care of this name?
How might I use the name I AM unconsciously and what consequences does this generate?
How often do I channel it into narrow pathways by the thought-less identifications I choose?
Can I imagine I AM without bounds, without separation, without any identification at all?


On Saturday, I attended the bar mitzvah of a friend’s son, who in her words is “growing up beautiful and strong.” He is doing this despite having suffered from a brain injury after being kicked in the head last year by a group of kids who thought he shouldn’t be in their neighborhood. He is magnificent, charming, genuine, funny. These words from a poem by Rumi were offered in his service booklet, for the period of silent meditation:

Lo, I am with you always means when you look for God,
God is in the look of your eyes,
in the thought of looking, nearer to you than your self,
or things that have happened to you
There’s no need to go outside.

Be melting snow.
Wash yourself of yourself.

A white flower grows in quietness.
Let your tongue become that flower.


Right now, I am as close as I will ever be to having a tongue of flowers, breakfasting on those inward-facing blossoms we call figs. And right now, I am finding a similar ripe and secret sweetness down here at the bottom of this river. I think of my friends, and the looks in their eyes. Mysterious perfect flowers blooming in the quietness. And right now, I remember, so Am I.


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