Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Spiritual Support

Where does the seriously chemically-sensitive spiritual seeker turn in a religious landscape chock-a-block with incense worshippers? Whether you used to be a Chanel No. 5 Episcopalian or in with the patchouli oil pagans, you may now find yourself driven into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. This may be good for the sinuses as well as the soul; however, I've been trying to come up with some other options.

I used to make my spiritual home at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, which offers meditation classes and retreats "in the Buddhist tradition." It's not a venue that works for me anymore, but I don't think accommodation of the environmentally ill gets much better at the institutional level. The center doesn't burn incense (although I was recently shocked to see--actually smell--it being sold at the bookstore). A well-publicized, if unexplicated, policy requests that people voluntarily refrain from using fragranced personal products. Most impressively, one dormitory was built with minimally-toxic materials, including wood floors instead of carpets. Fragrance-free products stock its showers.

Despite these measures, I have been unable to sit inside the meditation hall on my last visits, as scents continue to abound. Instead I have taken a chair outside, by a bank of windows, listening to the teachers by broadcast on a device designed for the hard of hearing. This is a workable arrangement in the summer, but this past year a good bit of California went up in flames and smoke was still swirling while I was on retreat. So, a mask had to compete for space on my head with a hat, a pair of glasses and the earpiece for the listening device. Folks, I'm not that devout.

As a first attempt at an alternative I've tried to form a fragrance-free meditation group. We've been a community of two for the better part of a year. The other member has been a blessing in my life, but still it's a little lonely. Lately, a few more souls have come out of the woodwork. This week a dear heart asked if she could join me for a retreat day in my apartment.

I've been thinking of organizing a weekly conference call for Buddhist study. This after being inspired by phone meetings of a new group, Chronic Illness and Disability Anonymous, which adapts the Alcoholics Anonymous program (in the Judeo-Christian tradition). "But how does that fit?" you might ask. I understand the goal to be the cessation of suffering--in a Buddhist formulation--despite illness and disability. And I say if physical healing flows from spiritual healing, I'll take it. To check it out call in either Sunday at 7:00 pm (EST) or 3:30 pm (EST). The conference call number is (702)851-4044 and the access code you'll be prompted to enter is 2432#.

Initially, there is the solace and inspiration to be discovered in literature. I've been finding Rilke good for redefining a life you might consider lost by conventional standards as prime ground for spiritual development. Hey, look at things a little differently and failure becomes a lucky escape from stultifying middle-class comfort. From "The Man Watching" ("Der Schauende") as translated by Robert Bly:

. . . What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us . . .

The poem ends with the suggestion that one grows

. . . by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.