This was part of a feature I wrote and shot for Crosswinds about Santa Fe's Ecoversity, a nonprofit educational center that explores and demonstrates concepts of sustainable living, ecological design, and responsibility for the wise stewardship of the Earth. I spent half a day there, touring the grounds and talking to the administrators. One of them was looking at me a bit oddly for much of the time we talked. At the end of the day, she turned to me and said, "You remind me so very much of our founder. You've got her same energy." When I went home, I looked up Frances Harwood and discovered that she had also founded the Naropa Institute in Boulder. I was flattered, to say the least.
If my grandmother had been Native American, this is how she would have looked. I loved how this woman radiated equanimity and compassion. Presuming she was probably born in the 1920s, how much change in northern NM she had witnessed.
Rohatsu, or Bodhi Day, marks the day in 596 BCE, when the Buddha achieved enlightenment in Bodh Gaya, India. After leaving his family and possessions behind at age 29, he sought to discover the meaning of life, particularly the reasons for its hardships. He sat under a pipal tree and vowed that he would remain there till he found what he was seeking. On the morning of the eighth day, he realized that humans suffer because of ignorance. But ignorance can be overcome through the Eightfold Path he went on to elucidate. This day is generally regarded as the birth day of Buddhism. We celebrate the point in time when the Buddha achieved enlightenment and escaped the endless cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Buddha was enlightened...when he looked up at the morning star, the planet we call Venus.The brightness of this planet was seen by Buddha from the depths of one week of samadhi [deep awareness]. The Buddha received that brightness with the same eyes of zazen [sitting meditation] that enable us to realize perfect enlightenment.
One week straight of this deepest possible samadhi was burst through by the brilliance of that morning star. A whole week's experience of that world burst the brightness of the morning star, plunging into the Buddha's eyes and giving rebirth to the Buddha's consciousness.
He cried: "That's it! That's it! That's it. That's me! That's me that's shining so brilliantly!"
Top photo: Heidi Utz
Middle photo: NASA
Bottom excerpt from "Morning Dewdrops of the Mind: Teachings of a Contemporary Zen Master," by Roy Tribelhorn and Shodo Harada Roshi
Sometimes a big thing begins with a small bowl. About 2 months ago, maybe even on the day when Hobie was born, I was on one of my usual book-shopping trips to Goodwill. I happened to stray over to the cookware dept., as I am always looking for baking pans. Mixed in with the glassware was this little bowl. I took one look at it and couldn't resist--it looked so happy. I'd been considering adopting a dog, and thought maybe if I had a food dish for him, he might show up. But this one was so tiny, and the dog I was looking to adopt would most likely be around 40 or 50 pounds. Ah, well, maybe I could use it for something else. The lady at the checkout stared at it with appreciation, then asked me if I would be using it for my kitty. I just smiled. The next day, I went to the grocery store and bought a can of dog food. Just in case...
I started visiting shelters religiously. At one point, I fell in love with a sizeable Rottweiler named Gordo. But I later found out that he tipped the scales at 110 pounds, which would not sit well with my landlord. A couple weeks ago, I walked through the shelter doors expecting the usual assortment of mutts and yappy Chihuahuas. But as I turned a corner, I suddenly was greeted by a litter of the most adorable puppies I'd ever seen. When I saw this face--and 8 others like it--staring at me from behind the bars of the cage, I suddenly realized why the bowl had been sitting in my cupboard for weeks. It was the perfect size for a ... puppy?
Nah! There was no way I was adopting a puppy. Just the week before, I had declined my friend Ann's offer of a really sweet Christmas housesit because she had...a puppy. I thought I'd hardly sleep and the little one would need constant entertaining. At my advanced age, I just wasn't set up for such intensive parenting.
Well, life had other plans. It always does. The shelter attendant asked me if I'd like to SEE one of the puppies. Uh oh. Well, sure, why not. "But only if you're seriously interested," he cautioned. Hmmm...certainly I was NOT seriously interested. However, it wouldn't hurt to tell a tiny white lie to get to play with such an adorable puppy for a few minutes. "I don't know how serious you'd like me to be, but I sure wouldn't mind spending some time with that one," I said, pointing at Hobie, who was then known as "Belmont."
He then led me to a large visiting room with little Belmont, who began to quiver and shake, as he'd likely never been away from his brothers and sisters before. We sat down on the couch together and stared into each others eyes. His were tiny little almonds, deep brown with blue at the edges, as if they had just turned color the day before. Damn, he was precious! The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back on the floor and he was stomping all over me, and I was laughing hysterically at little paws prancing all over my body and a furry, 5-pound being insisting that I play with him. What a good little player! He had me rolling all over the floor trying to catch him, but then would settle down so easily for cuddling and a hug. In those 15 minutes I spent alone with him, I laughed more than I had the entire week before. There was absolutely no turning back. As we headed out the door to the front desk, I told myself that if this were not meant to be, a roadblock would appear. Something would go wrong in the adoption process. It would refuse to happen.
The people at the county shelter are really, really sweet. They took one look at me and this tiny cling-on hunkered down against my chest and burst into these big smiles. I filled out a very brief application, they read it over quickly, and a few minutes later...I was tucking Hobie into his seat in the car.
Oh my God, I now owned a puppy! I have to admit that some of my expectations were confirmed. Being a new puppy mom is a bit like being a new human mom. There is constant watching. Constant playing. Constant listening. Frequent worry. And behavior modification at 10-minute intervals. But the endorphins also kick in, and there are so many angelic moments, so many times when you find yourself laughing and laughing, so much affection and soft fur nuzzling your skin--so much that makes all the stress worth it. Like the little face staring up at you, delirious with happiness and obviously confusing you with God.
[N.B., Here is the new version of this piece, which I just sent to Salon.com.]
As we head into the last year of the decade, I’ve been thinking about what they’re going to call our roll into the 21st century. You know, those who write the history books, the pundits, the same guys who come up with lines like “Tiger is a Cheetah.” What will the era ultimately be named?
Undoubtedly we dwell in the Information Age, a time of pervasive digitization, and that seems to offer an easy appellation. But maybe it’s more the effect this development has had on our hearts and minds that defines the tenor of the times: our stepping back from human relating and stomping toward our digital devices like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead.
As we seem to become increasingly detached, I wonder about the arc of this ostensible advance. Could it signal the beginning of our impending obviation on Planet E? Is human life meant to off itself not with a grand, Jesus-strewn apocalypse, but, ironically enough, through its very own efforts at “development”?
Some say we are moving toward a time (roughly circa 2050) when human presence on Earth will be edged out, as technology rushes headlong to a point of “Singularity.” Futurist thinker Ray Kurzweil defines this era as a time when technological advances begin to unfold so rapidly that normal humans cannot keep pace and are cut out of the loop. At that point, Strong Artificial Intelligences and cybernetically augmented humans will become the dominant life forms, thus showing human history the door. Perhaps this is the backstory to Cormac McCarthy’s Road.
I can buy that eventually technology may trump biology but find it hard to believe that such a threshold could be crossed within 41 years. Then again, Kurzweil’s predictions have come to pass before, and technology evolves infinitely faster today than could have been fathomed as we flipped through our floppy discs a decade ago.
For many, digital devices and culture now consume a huge hunk of our daily bread. Just 25 years ago, few individuals could boast a computer in their homes, practically no one had cell phones, and a “hi-tech” household sported a cumbersome cable TV box and a 20-pound VCR it took an hour to convince to record one sit-com.
Today it’s a rare person who doesn’t own both computer and cell–frequently both in one–to which they’re often fanatically devoted. Some have designated these times the Attention Age, as we create and consume media and information like water, funneling it along the channels of our social media canals like gondolas through Venice.
This Brave New World seems to be riddled with paradox, however. Walt Whitman once advised, “Only connect.” And people are apparently connecting more often than ever before. With all the cell-phoning and texting and emailing and Smart Phoning, we seem to have sprouted digital umbilical cords with those closest to us. Yet this form of relatedness can feel woefully inadequate. Like fast food, it projects a semblance of nourishment. But can we be said to be deeply communicating via a text message? A tweet? A thumbs-up response to a Facebook post? At the heart of our hyper-presence lies an eerie absence, a self-perpetuating void we try to overcome by slapping our friends’ virtual backs on Facebook and sending quick texts and forwarding emails to let them know we “care.” Yet ultimately, the result can feel like drinking skim milk when we long for a rich, silky cream.
But if we are indeed moving toward absenting Mama Earth of our humanity, perhaps this is how it’s meant to be. Maybe what I might call the “Age of Detached Connection” is a step in the evolutionary progression toward the Global Android Village. Perchance this is a weaning process, and the Internet has become the transitional pacifier before we cut our cyborg milk teeth. And just maybe the Jetsonian children of tomorrow will honestly prefer a Zhu Zhu Pet to a living, breathing hamster, and we who pine for heartbeats and hamsterly élan vital will be considered hopelessly superannuated.
But it’s hard to blame them. Children have lived their whole lives with screens and keys. And with all the simulated connection in cyberspace, it’s easy for any of us to imagine we’ve got it going on. People “meet” without ever laying eyes on each other; they “talk” without ever opening their mouths; they “hang out” without ever hugging or touching or gazing into each other’s eyes. If it weren’t so life-forsaking, it would be pretty damned convenient.
Teenagers seem particularly ripe for this technological plucking. A recent NPR report noted that the number of teens pursuing driver’s licenses has decreased by millions. In the late 70s when I raced to get my license on the morning of my 17th birthday, it was generally considered a rite of passage, as eagerly awaited as legal drinking age and high school commencement. But many kids now have such well-stocked rooms, loaded with Blu-Ray and DVD players, gaming systems, computers, musical instruments, Wii, cell phones, and iPods, that they feel little compulsion to leave, save for the dreary obligation of school. They can game online with people across the world, so that in-person friendships assume less importance, and friendly relating takes the form of a specific, targeted activity. This is quite different from my memories of getting together with other kids just to “hang around,” an amorphous term that implied a distinct lack of goal orientation. A lot of great creative projects emerged from that free-parking time.
But with its easy-to-navigate alternate reality and predictable set of responses, technology can be an irresistible Siren. Its largess of anonymity offers the opportunity to be more honest in some ways and more deceitful in others. Within its maws, each one of us gets the chance to create an entirely separate identity, an avatar that may bear little resemblance to the one we appear to have in 3-D. Added to these de facto identities are literal avatars populating such metaverses as Second Life (and its corollary, Teen Second Life), the highly nuanced virtual community that offers the options to socialize with other avatars, spend “money,” own “land,” display art, perform live music and theater, practice religion, and even have online sex. As of October 2009, more than 16 million residents had passed through Orientation Island.
Each of us citizens of cyberspace creates his or her own holograms, abstract models of what human connection looks like in screenless reality. And of course, for many, this adaptation to our timidity in social situations is great news. We have successfully engineered a series of high-tech workarounds for human discomfort within the 3-D landscape of flesh, blood, and emotion. But is creating such skewed identities really improving the scenario? The act of holograms’ colliding with holograms still can’t provide the soft nurturance and engagement of the senses that our still-human brains and bodies require to support healthy life.
Is this the time to stop and admonish, to prophesy doomsday if we don’t mend the error of our ways? Or are we bumping up against simply “what is,” based on some foregone conclusion about the fate of human life on Earth? Can individual humans have an impact, opt out of such a strong tidal wave, the Macy’s Day technological marching band? And is such a backlash even desirable, or would it serve as a roadblock in the development of consciousness? What would The Tao say about attempting to push against what feels like a river—though one so desiccated that it may be antithetical to life itself?
Perhaps our very weaknesses as human beings have flung open the door for another “life form” to enter and develop qualities that have eluded us. This calls to mind some of the classic sci-fi android films, such as A.I., Westworld, and Blade Runner, in which the drones can more readily show empathy and compassion than their human counterparts. In the heartbreaking trajectory of A.I., a young droid travels the world for more than 2,000 years, feverishly searching for the love of a mother who abandoned him. In Blade Runner, the cyborgs express the height of compassion by sparing the life of the main character, a human intent on killing them.
Have we come down with the ultimate spiritual ailment? That the human race needs to outsource our love, to create machines capable of its expression because we have so botched the job? If a machine can love better than we can, then really what is left for us to do besides strum a few chords on Guitar Hero and tweet about it? At which point, it might just be time for Armageddon to sling around a few locusts and smite us with ulcers.
Last night, Debi stopped by to bring me a little gift to cheer me up. She’s just wonderful—she can’t help it, she just is. When she said it was a gift for me and Hobie, I was thinking maybe a dog-training manual. After all...he’s a wild child, and perhaps it’s time to whisper in his ear some sweet nothings about civilization. But it was actually way better than Cesar or the Monks of New Skete. The gift was a book about how to rediscover joy through watching your dog’s delight in everyday life. Called Guardians of Being, it combines the words of Eckhart Tolle and art and cartoons by Patrick McDonnell, who draws the Mutts comic strip. So many awesome reminders of living in the present moment, the sacred bond that we create with a dog, and the complete reciprocity of our care for them and theirs for us.
It is a wonderful reminder that dogs and cats are happy because they don’t get caught up in painful thoughts of the past or worries about the future. They just are. In one strip, a little critter is whining to his dog buddy, “I was thinking of ALL my problems. I was thinking of ALL the pain of the past and...I was thinking of ALL the uncertainty of the future. And I was thinking poor, poor me---my sad life. And then I was thinking how LITTLE time there is...and I’m really thinking it’s all just...hopeless. What can I do?” He puts his head in his paws and begins to cry. Almost shrugging, the dog looks at him and says, “Shtop thinking.”
Tolle also imparts a great message about learning how to celebrate life by being completely present with it, like a dog when he’s out on a walk fills his entire being through his senses. Through living in the moment, and that moment alone, a dog will wring all of the possible pleasure from it, unencumbered by what has occurred even 5 minutes before. In another strip, a man and his pup are out jaunting along the shoreline. The man says, “Earl, it is so nice to get away from it all!” The puppy looks nonplussed, and thinks, “I guess...although I don’t have that much of an ‘all’ to get away from.”
My swirling, bouncing puppy can leap 3 feet in the air at the mere idea of food. The same food he’s had morning, noon, and night for the past 10 days. He can derive fits of joy from a biscuit that’s no bigger than the top of my finger. And he can entertain himself for 15 minutes straight with an empty yogurt container.
After he eats a meal (which lasts all of about 15 seconds), he comes and finds me in the house, then launches into a fit of tail-wagging so vigorous that his entire lower half dusts the floor like a mop. This morning when we first woke up, he was so thrilled to hear the sound of my voice that he ran over, curled up next to my hand, and began to lick every square inch of it with the force of his love and admiration. Gone from his mind were all the ways I had frustrated his desires, the day before, when I'd left him in his crate and he'd bellowed at the top of his lungs, all the ways my goals and desires intersected with his not at all. He had dismissed those within minutes after their occurrence. And with the dawning of a new day, all was forgotten, forgiven, and better yet, celebrated! Dogs seem to have hard-wired in their brains that the key point to life is, first and foremost, to love with all your heart.
And in some ways, we make it utterly easy for them. Often, domesticated canines have a primo gig. Someone feeds and protects them, and they don’t have to make a living. They don’t have customers yelling at them and breakups that tear them apart and clinical depression that decks them. And they don't feed their own misery by sitting around listening to Amy Goodman or bleak NPR reports from Kabul. Sure, they're less complex. But one of the many reasons we’ve chosen them as companions is that they bring us back to the essentials: how fun it is to play, how satisfying it can be to eat a great meal, how good it feels to give your body a nice long stretch, how relaxing it is to take a nap after a big, healthy walk.
As Tolle puts it, “What is it that so many people find enchanting in animals? Their essence—their Being—is not covered by the mind, as it is in most humans. And whenever you feel that essence in another, you also feel it in yourself.”
Thank you, Hobie (and Eckhardt, and Debi) for reminding me of all of this.