Small Demon
Aug 022012
 

I have continued my practice of sitting zazen while here in Vietnam, though I only seem to be able to sit once a day, in the evening, rather than my usual twice a day, morning & evening practice. And I’ve been listening to dharma talks by MRO teachers. When I return to the US, just before the semester begins, I will spend a week at the monastery for the August sesshin*. Lat night I dreamed I had arrived for sesshin, which for some reason was beginning with a large public gathering in a tall building quite unlike the monastery. “Well, I’m new at this,” I told myself, “just go with the flow.” But there wasn’t much flow & people did not seem to know what was going on. I decided to just go to the zendo & wait, but I couldn’t find it. I knew it was on the ground floor, but all the elevators were behaving strangely & the staircases seemed to have been designed by M.C. Escher. Classic anxiety dream, of course, though with an unusual object.

M.C. Escher Staircases

I never did find the zendo & woke up feeling frustrated, but also with the notion in my head that “just sitting” is much harder than one might suppose. Just getting to the place where one can sit is no simple matter!

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*Characterized by silence and deep introspection, sesshin is recommended to anyone who is sincerely interested in experiencing intensive Zen training. We wake up each day before dawn to begin a schedule that includes 7 to 10 hours of zazen, chanting services, formal silent meals in the zendo (oryoki), work practice. . .

May 092010
 

The soundtrack for this post is Dylan’s “Series of Dreams.” Dreams are out of fashion in psychiatry these days, but I’m still a Freudian at heart and I pay attention to my dreams when I remember them. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” writes Yeats, quoting “an old play,” a sentiment then echoed by Delmore Schwartz in what is probably his single most successful piece of writing, unless you figure that he “wrote” Saul Bellow’s Humbolt’s Gift. Talk about intertextuality!

First dream: I’m an adult in my childhood home, having returned to live there with C. We have our usual crew of scruffy, noisy dogs with us and we’ve settled in — been in residence maybe two or three days. The house is a big Victorian affair with a balcony and a turret & a sweeping sun porch, etc. C & I are standing on the porch when an older woman, elegantly dressed, with an upswept gray coif, approaches across the driveway. Picture from last year sent to me by a childhood friend She’s a neighbor & is leading a little schnauzer — as elegant as she is — on a lead. As she comes up to us, our terriers start barking & leaping around. The woman begins to greet us, but is clearly bothered by our unkempt, delinquent dogs. She raises her eyebrows, throws her head back nose-in-the-air style, & says, “Completely lacking in class & breeding.”  Up to this point I’ve just been interested in meeting this neighbor, but at this point in the dream I become enraged & begin shouting at her to “Get off my property, get off my god damned property! ”

Second Dream: I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, except that it is located where Ottawa ought to be; that is, close to where I actually live. I’m with some other people who have never been there before & I am explaining how to get around, where to go. It is the day before I have to leave for home & I am saying to one of the people I’m with, “It always breaks my heart to have to leave this place. I breaks my heart.” Then I’m by myself in a part of town I’m not familiar with and I stop at a food stall to order bun cha (grilled pork & noodles), but either because of my poor Vietnamese or the perversity of stall owner, along with the pork and noodles I receive a grilled songbird and a frog. I decide to eat the pork but not the two more exotic offerings.

I see both these dreams as taking control dreams. One of the main themes of my dream life over the years has been loss of control — lost in big cities, cars that won’t steer correctly or in which the brakes don’t work, elevators that go sideways, buildings that double back on themselves just when you think you’re getting to the exit, etc. In the first dream here, I return to the scene of my childhood anguish and helplessness, move in, and defend my turf against the sort of people my parents desperately wanted to be. I woke from that one feeling proud of myself. In the second dream, set in HCMC, not Hanoi, which is my “home town” in Vietnam, I’m getting along well despite some uncertainty. The business with the food suggests to me that I don’t have to accept every aspect of Vietnamese culture & that I can love the place without having to embrace everything about it. (I actually have been served whole grilled songbirds in HCMC, but never frogs.)

And speaking of dreams & Freud & all that, I love this response by Phillip Levine to his then teacher Robert Lowell, who had complained about Levine’s use of Freud, accusing him of lifting it from Auden. “Mr. Lowell,” Levine said, “I’m Jewish. I steal Freud directly from Freud; he was one of ours.” Well, I’m not Jewish, but I found Freud early and under the influence of my teacher Larry Frank made him my own. The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, The Interpretation of Dreams, Civilization and its Discontents — these have been maps to the world for me over the decades. Freud has been, in Lowell’s own words, one of my “Masters of Joy.”

Memory

 Memory  Personal  Comments Off
Sep 052009
 

Had a dream last night that I lost my car in a huge shopping mall parking lot. It was specifically my new Honda and I was trying to use the fancy electronic key to make the lights flash (it was daytime) or to pop the trunk open so I could see it, but I couldn’t find it. Finally, a kid on a bicycle offered to help me look for it. The dream ended without resolution, as dreams will. It’s kind of funny now, but it wasn’t funny in the dream. Bodily decrepitude as I grow older doesn’t frighten me much (though I’d just as soon avoid it), but mental decrepitude scares the crap out of me. I’ve built my life and identity around being able to have thoughts and think productively.

Camping?

 Camping?  Personal, Philosophy  Comments Off
Jul 292009
 

Had a dream last night that I was in a store buying things to go camping. I don’t like camping, actually, so I will take this as a metaphor for starting out on some kind of intellectual or spiritual adventure. Earlier, I had another dream in which a little girl gave me a device she had made, which she called Danny Ray’s Magic Ray. It was constructed like a pair of glasses without the bows — you had to hold it up to your face with your hand — and consisted of, on the left side, beads and wire bent into circles and swirls; this was the “antenna.” On the right there was simply a circle of wire through which one looked at the world, turning it “magic.” No lens or anything, just a bit of wire to frame the view. I take this to suggest that we need to pick up the world’s signals and that ultimately we make the world by the way(s) in which we approach it. Not a bad insight to have if you are setting out on a solo “camping” trip. What did Theodore Roethke say? “I am a perpetual beginner.”

Apr 172009
 

I had two dreams about Thanksgiving — the American holiday — last night. I woke from each feeling profoundly happy. Neither had anything to do with Vietnam other than that fact that I am in Vietnam dreaming. I don’t remember anything but the feeling tone of the first dream, but in the second I was in a church basement with strangers getting ready to eat Thanksgiving dinner. There was an old man to my left and a woman named Maria across the long table from me, as well as some other people. Looking at Maria’s smile, I began to smile too, a feeling of deep contentment coming over me so intense it woke me.

Eight years ago, standing on Tran Hung Dao St. here in Hanoi, Lady Borton and I were having a conversation about people we knew who had come to Vietnam — Americans — and been changed is various ways by the experience. There was Lady herself, John Balaban, a bunch of writers. I was a few days from going home and I had come through a rough time that I still can’t quite explain, a period of several weeks where a few minor health problems had spiraled into a bout of obsessive-compulsive thinking, restlessness, lack of apatite, and sleeplessness. All this just under the surface while I was apparently functioning pretty much normally in public, though a couple of friends sensed something weird was going on. At one point in the conversation, Lady remarked, “This place has healed a lot of people.” And it’s true, though I’m not quite sure why that should be. Writing this just now I can hear the dawn birds just staring up and in the distance a rooster crowing. My heart is at ease.