James Stengram

Parabola Magazine

Parabola Magazine

Poetry Spring 2011:

The Eyes of Men by Lee Van Laer
Power and Love by Patty de Llosa
Below the Surface by Luke Storms
Making a New Start by Patty de Llosa
As Above, So Below by Luke Storms
A Clearing in the Woods by Patty de Llosa


The Eyes of Men
Poems in Transition, Cambodia

I am here
On the road
On the edge of the sun
On the edge of the rain
Where the light spills across the rice paddies
Which are covered not by water
But by sky

This is how it's done:
The sky lays down in the earth
Beneath the water buffalo
And together they come to the edge of the green sea
Where the hills drop down
To sand awaiting footprints
That may never get there and
The horizon disappears
In an endless silver light

I am here
Where egrets stalk frogs and minnows
Unaware of the elegance of death
But dedicated to it nonetheless.

And here
Where the careless movement
of a woman's finger
Traces out the curve of her pearl earring-
Touches her silken black waterfall of hair-

These things are enough to prove
That love incarnates eternally
That heaven can never drink enough blood
To be done with this endeavor
But will throw life against death forever
Just to be there
When beauty falls into the eyes of men.

Lee Van Laer

Power and Love

As we see more deeply into our inner drives and defenses, we discover that the choices we are faced with aren’t all black and white. Life teaches us that our decisions aren't necessarily based on "this" or "that." We come to understand the truth of “both/and.

The assumption that things are either good or bad, true or false, that I’m either happy or miserable, lovable or hateful, has been replaced by astonishing new facts: I both want to be good but my efforts can have bad effects; there’s falsehood mixed in with my truth; I want and don’t want whatever is my current desire; and I can both love and hate another person at the same time.

What about the two primary human drives, love and power? I used to think the opposite of love was hate. But life experience tells me that's not true. Hate is so tinged with other emotions, including love! No. In my understanding the opposite of love is power. Love accepts and embraces. Power refuses and crushes opposition. Love is kind and knows how to forgive. Power is competitive and takes others into account only when it stands in the Winner's Circle.

What's most disturbing is that both of these feelings can exist in me at the same time.  Power seeks dominion. It’s about winning, owning, controlling, running the show; while love is about caring, taking in the message, finding what’s needed, seeing what wishes to appear and helping it to flower. 

Yet, if I'm honest, both live in me. That means there can be a drive for power behind the caring, helpful person, the one who wants to please, as well as in the take-charge kind of guy. We are lovers in love with love but also in love with power. 

Perhaps Martin Buber said it best:

"We cannot avoid using power,
Cannot escape the compulsion
To afflict the world.
So let us, cautious in diction
And mighty in contradiction,
Love powerfully."

Patty De Llosa

Below the Surface

There are moments where I don’t know what to do with myself. I feel like a complete stranger. All the things I normally feel compelled to do: check my emails, surf the internet, have a beer, listen to music, etc. are gone. I am a completely different person. Everything feels entirely new and I feel like I’ve dropped something very heavy, like a traveler who has left his entire luggage at the door.

Even my relationship to the person I spend my life with has miraculously shifted. I realize that I don’t know her at all and at the same time I suffer the fact that I habitually take her for granted. Suddenly there is this capacity of listening to her more deeply. A great mystery has undermined all of my fixed ideas and preconceived notions. It is the feeling George Saunders describes so beautifully in his article, “Buddha Boy“:

You know the feeling at the end of the day, when the anxiety of that-which-I-must-do falls away and, for maybe the first time that day, you see, with some clarity, the people you love and the ways you have, during that day, slightly ignored them, turned away from them to get back to what you were doing, blurted out some mildly hurtful thing, projected, instead of the deep love you really feel, a surge of defensiveness or self-protection or suspicion? That moment when you think, Oh God, what have I done with this day? And what am I doing with my life? And how must I change to avoid catastrophic end-of-life regrets?

It’s extremely odd and discomforting, but at the same time it is bittersweet because it is a taste of a new possibility, a taste of real freedom. I have stepped out of the old recorded tapes that constantly play in the background of my psyche, telling me who I am.

I have ceased, for the time being, lying to myself or believing in the stories I create about myself. I am no longer living in mental constructions or concepts which Herschel says are, “delicious snacks with which we try to alleviate our amazement.”

Of course, we can’t stay on the summit forever. We start leaking out this gathered energy like a sieve and then it’s back to the level of reaction. These moments of a profound inner separation are merely a preparation for something to penetrate into my daily life. I don’t think they are the ultimate goal. I need to go further, to include more, and this leads me to a deeper questioning.

I think that something within us is aware that our stories aren’t real, even though we are continually living in them. We gather these moments of seeing ourselves and find that we don’t sleep as peacefully as we did before. To see ourselves, as we are, becomes more important. Even when the forces are heavily weighed against us we can try to oppose a continual passivity with something that is active on the inside. Rainer Maria Rilke describes this war against passivity when he says that, “what we choose to fight is so tiny! What fights with us is so giant!”

I see that either I am moving outwards towards dispersion or I am gathering all the pieces of myself inwardly and moving towards wholeness.
So maybe along comes a moment where I am inwardly active and without any manipulation, I can see the thoughts, the emotions, and the bodily sensations that are continually taking place. I am able to openly inhabit my life by being in relationship with it directly. I allow a life that is beyond the surface of my self to come into focus.

There are two currents present in the moment of seeing – a vertical one as well as a horizontal one – the level of my ordinary manifestations and that of another level which is the seeing. There is an acceptance of myself as I am and in this moment.

In my negativity, for example, I can see my reactions as well as the pull to self calm the situation by pushing it away or by escaping from it.

We need to see all this movement in ourselves, all these energies at work. We need to be in relationship with all this magical chemistry that is taking place. Now, ask yourself, “Who am I?” It’s the eternal question, the Zen koan of all Zen koans. The ego will immediately try to fortify itself but if we answer that question truthfully, all the freedom in the world is in not knowing.

How can I be available to that question? I think that anything I have understood in my practice has had emotional involvement; it’s been learned through the heart as well as the head. It is the clear distinction Jung made when he said that “the utterances of the heart- unlike those of the discriminating intellect- always relate to the whole.”

So how do I try to bring more emotion into my efforts? Well, I can try to remain close to my own mortality that continually follows me, perched on my shoulders. The presence of death is so constant and so familiar that I forget about it. I can make use of it as a constant reminder to make an effort.
For a long time my practice has involved trying to maintain an attention on my breath, always and everywhere. Often I forget and I am taken by my mind functioning, the endless circle of associations. I am swallowed up in that current again.

No matter, I just return to this body, breathing.

Luke Storms

Making a New Start
by Patty de Llosa
Making a new start isn’t starting ‘again.’ There’s no ‘again’ about it. New is new. But by now I’ve learned how quickly I slip back into the old, so making a new start needs constant renewing. That means I have to work at the ‘new’ part when everything calls me back to old ways. As F. M. Alexander said, “Change involves carrying out an activity against the habits of life.”

I’m hard put to find words to describe this active work of renewal, so I’ll try to recount the experience itself. First, there’s the moment of truth: I’ve connected with my life on a deeper level than before. Then there’s the vision awakened by the experience. I’ve understood something and been given a new opportunity to live by it, to base my life on that vision.

However, clarity fades away like a receding tide as old habits of thought and feeling come flooding back in. How to withstand their undertow? Is direct combat a viable solution? I’ve tried it, of course, but it’s like doing battle with a big wave rather than diving through it and I’ve been swept away many a time.

I call my new way to work with it “planting seeds of change.” Every time I wake up to the Old, I find some way to plant a seed of New, even if there’s little else I can do against the force of habit. For example, this morning I noticed my demandingness, the Autocrat in action, and tried to take a step back, an inner withdrawal of belief in him. I’m not trying to shoot him down. He’s too powerful for that! But I’m separating out from him – into him and me – as I take notes on what he wants. When his aims become clear, I ask myself, “Do I want what he wants?” Perhaps not. A seed has been planted.

Or let’s say my old nemesis, Mrs. Rigid, appears, clutching her rulebook and telling me just how things ought to be done. I take a step away before she has a chance to swallow me up, and remind myself how terrified she is of change. That’s what makes her rigid. But I don’t have to be stuck in her narrow-minded world, or follow the same laws she does. Another seed.

When will these new seeds sprout? How big will the fruit or flower be? No idea. Perhaps it’s not for me to know at my level of engagement. But I decide to trust that planting new seeds into the old way of doing things will say ‘yes’ to the deep wish to live differently. The wish touched me as lightly as the brush of a butterfly’s wing, or the swish of my cat’s tail to let me know he’s gone by.

A new beginning needs food. You have to nourish it each day. Easier said than done, of course! My head can make lists with Meditation and Walks in the Park in capital letters, but making lists is easy. So the question is, how to awaken that new vision right in the middle of the action?

Patty de Llosa is author of The Practice of Presence: Five Paths for Daily Life (Morning Light Press 2006), recently translated in Spanish as well as available in a downloadable audio book read by the author.
(For more information, see practiceofpresence.com.)

Tappan Zee
(from the hudson river series)

The piece, like most of the Hudson River pieces, is an investigation of the way that the magical intersects with the ordinary--an exploration of how sacred, or higher, forces touch the events of everyday life.

This question continues to draw me. There are mysteries woven within the mundane that we are asleep to. How can we evoke them without cheapening or literalizing them? - Lee Van Leer

Enter, now, cold dragons
Seeking loss in the bare bones of November
Sending hordes of leaves to chatter
Across the barren table rock.

The earth waves its fingers at the sky
Which gives back gray emptiness
But yields no silence-
Only expectations.

The sparrows move together
As though separation were a danger-
Flocks can be torn apart and lost
In northwest winds.

In other places, life grows still:
Cold ponds, and failing light.
Reeds fall face-down towards water,
Surrender their humility.

On hillsides where the darkness falls
I am the litter and the hard ground
The rock between slipping feet;
I am sprained ligaments, and battered breath.

Do we carry wood towards fires
Trusting in the warmth, without regretting
The thievery that brings us here
To watch things burn?

Tied down by the weight of flesh
Distance is invisible.
Each inhalation
Is an engine of mortality.

I am made of my own devices,
Crafting hungers, weaving baskets-
Dreaming of forgotten clothing, double lives-
The accidents that hope engenders.

Such are fixed things-
Life flows around them effortlessly.
No wind will carry me
To the next place.

Lee van Laer

As Above, So Below

I am sitting in the silent whisper of a vaulted cathedral. The noise of my own mind is all that there appears to be. Once in a while, tourist’s footsteps can be heard echoing through the massive room. Sometimes the mild disturbance of the footsteps captures me. When they do, my attention is brought up to my head as though I was a cork rising to the surface of a body of water.

I remember that I am in a church; that I am here now.
I keep bringing myself back from the great distances that thought can travel.

No expectations.
Just sitting here, remaining active on the inside.
I sense the hard surface of the wooden pew, I breathe in the heavy scent of the cathedral’s atmosphere with its vast history of contemplation.

Can I have contact with a sacred substance?

The church bell rings out an invitation every 15 minutes with its distant song that vibrates into space.
My eyes are closed.
My thoughts grow quieter.
Slowly I am sinking deeper within myself.
The breath naturally deepens and expands the lungs.
I am being breathed.
I seem to be worlds away from the person I happened to be who entered the church moments ago.

One could read a thousand books on meditation and be none the wiser for it.
It would be like glimpsing a mountain through a train window and afterward telling people you had been there without actually having set foot on it.

Each time, the mountain must be climbed anew.
Its terrain is forever changing and shifting.
I always have to approach it in a different way; from a fresh perspective.
Fearlessly I climb, stripping off everything that is in the way; even the climbing itself.
Vertically. Horizontally.
In-Between is Now.
The axis mundi.

Luke Storms

A Clearing in the Woods
(Originally appeared on Practiceofpresence.com)

Dante reminded us that any of us could wake up one day in the middle of a dark wood. We may have been asleep for a long time but now we’re looking around, hungry and confused, surrounded by trees and bushes, with no idea how we got here. “Wow!” we may think. “Let’s get out of here!” Perhaps the first step before panic sends us storming into the undergrowth would be to acknowledge that we are in fact lost in the woods. We feel imprisoned in an unknown world with no idea how we got here or what put us to sleep. Looking back it may be possible to remember who knows what ideals and ambitions that led us, propelled by success or failure or just burying ourselves in work and obligations, to this very place.

Next, it might be advisable to take a good look at these particular trees and bushes, so that when we start to hunt for a clearing in the woods we don’t go in a circle and end up right where we began! So first comes the recognition, “I am lost.” Then taking stock of what it’s really like right here.

What comes after that? Not having a supply of breadcrumbs (and anyway who wants to find their way back here?), we could forage through our backpacks for a compass. Oops! I guess we forgot to bring one along because we thought we knew where we were going! But fear not, because there just might be a compass built into us at birth.

Gimme a break! Anyway, if true, where is it? Let’s see. Where to look? Not many choices outside of the woods, clothes and backpack, so it’s got to be in the body. Everything that’s ours on this dubious terrestrial adventure is in the body, including the sleeping brain that got us into this mess. Personal investigation suggests that it’s highly probable that besides losing our way and going to sleep, we’ve misused this vehicle of ours. Once we take stock we'll have to admit that it may be overweight or heartsick or suffering from one or another disease, not to mention feeling strained and unhappy!

Along with the rising sun, light begins to dawn on our unpleasant situation. Better first to attend to any illness or imbalance. Not with doctors, because we’ve probably already gone that route, but with our own best intelligence. Now a dialogue begins. What does the body need that I’ve been denying it? Do I ever listen to its messages? The solution could be as simple as appropriate foods, loving exercise and a bit of warmth and sunshine. The study could include the body/soul, which may need other kinds of food and other forms of light.

Ok, let’s get down to work: We could cut branches from some bushes to make a more comfortable bed, and find kindling for a fire to warm ourselves and cook food – there may be interesting roots and plants around here that offer new kinds of nourishment. Scrounging through our things by the light of the fire we may even uncover a map we missed or ignored in the books and papers we brought along.

Gradually, as we act to change the quality of our lives, a miracle may bloom. (Gurdjieff defined miracles as laws from another level acting on our level.) This same dark wood where we were lost may have changed as well. If we cut down some of the underbrush, find a stream for water and work at bedding and feeding ourselves, our lost place may begin to look more like a clearing in the woods: a place where we can meditate, study our situation, even draw maps to figure our way out of the woods. Because perhaps we now begin to remember the way we came.

Patty de Llosa

Patty de Llosa is the author of The Practice of Presence: Five Paths for Daily Life (Morning Light Press, 200).


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