Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Ivan Besack is quite right to say I didn’t understand what I was doing at the vipassanâ retreat: I didn’t even know what vipassanâ meant! But there is more than one way to approach a silent retreat. The transformation I experienced in my week of silence suggests to me that my approach was not incorrect and that laughter can be part of enlightenment.
I enjoyed the July 2010 interview with Malidoma Somé on rites of passage [“Between Two Worlds,” by Leslee Goodman]. My own rite of passage came as I was heading off to college more than half a century ago. The country doctor who had taken me under his wing and mentored me in my teens had died, and his widow gave me all of his belongings that she couldn’t sell: the dusty skeleton that had stood in his office; an old German microscope with a cracked lens; a few obsolete surgical instruments; and his well-worn leather bag, with its subtle, sacred scent of iodine. I felt initiated into an ancient brotherhood of healers going back to Hippocrates and Galen. It put the final seal on my determination to become a doctor.
Goodman’s interview with Somé pushed me toward a fuller understanding of the meaning of sacred, unrestricted by the boundaries of any religion. Somé says the modern, Western, linear, growth-obsessed worldview and the ritual-rich, other-dimensional, magical worldview are parallel lines that can never intersect. I cling, perhaps naively, to the hope that these lines could indeed be bent into one.
I live in a rural community in a backward state. Leslee Goodman’s interview with Malidoma Somé was like a cold glass of water to someone who’s been wandering lost in the desert. I enjoyed his views regarding healthy spirituality, emotionally cleansing self-expression, living out an individual sense of purpose while serving a larger community, and the existence of multiple layers of reality.
I am a new subscriber, and this interview was a great introduction to the mind-opening power and pleasures of The Sun.
Malidoma Somé’s instructions for how to begin to have a relationship with one’s ancestors were so disarmingly simple that, on a whim, I figured I’d try it. I reached for a bottle of water and stepped outside to pour it on the ground and talk to my deceased forebears.
I like to think of myself as a hardheaded, show-me-the-evidence kind of person — medical school did a pretty good job of drilling that into me. So it was with surprise and delight that I realized the bottle of water I’d grabbed was seltzer. My paternal great-grandfather, one of those ancestors to whom I would be reaching out, had owned a soda-water factory in Geelong, Australia, a hundred years ago. It was soda water that had allowed him to amass the money that, passed on through my grandfather and my father, helped pay my way through medical school. The ancestors had been there for me all along, I realized. And that reminded me that I have the opportunity to help pave the way for someone else.
Leslee Goodman’s interview with Malidoma Somé stirred me. I have worked with adolescents most of my adult life, and I agree that we need to do a better job of meeting their developmental needs for adventure, drama, and challenge. As Somé says, left to their own devices, adolescents often drift toward unproductive, high-risk behaviors and mischief or worse, yet we do little to address their need for rites of passage to focus those energies.
Rituals, however, are tricky. If they do not resonate, then it is unlikely their effects will stay with us long term. We do have rituals in Western life: coming-of-age ceremonies connected to religions, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries, funerals, holiday celebrations. Many of these observances have become buried in a show of material wealth.
We need not only ritual but intimate community that allows for safe emotional and creative expression. I have been to the kind of retreats Somé talks about, and there is a kind of euphoria that is hard to let go of when they end. Our challenge in our society is to create positive intimate communities that can incorporate into daily life those feelings, for ourselves and our children.
Malidoma Somé finds his African indigenous culture superior to ours in many ways, and except for his superstitious talk of “other dimensions,” I mostly agree. Western culture often fails to provide secure identity and meaning to its restless consumer-citizens. I’m alarmed, though, that he prescribes initiation borrowed from traditional cultures as a cure.
Initiation is a form of psychosocial manipulation. Tribal elders compel the young to endure a one-size-fits-all experience in order to shape them in a way that is valued by the group. Whether the shaping is beneficial or not, it is imposed, not chosen, and the process may be harsh and risky.
Some of the organizations that initiate adult American men use methods that can be downright dangerous: isolation, aggressive indoctrination, group pressure, humiliation, and intensely emotional exercises. They tear down and rebuild the participants in the group’s image of what a man should be. There often is no informed consent because the process is kept secret. This is a coercive experience, not an educational one. Although many respond positively, some are undone and others outraged by such tricky “technology.” These men become casualties of the training, like the young people who don’t survive initiation in Somé’s culture.
Last month your mailing declared, “This is your very last issue,” and I thought, OK, so be it. Then I read Sparrow’s “A Prayer for the Dead” [July 2010] and realized that priceless insights are always a bargain. I’m renewing my subscription.
How perfect to read Sparrow’s beautiful homage to the dead immediately after having read the letter from Meredith Mason, who said her “heart sinks a little” every time she sees the Dog-Eared Page.
Would there even be any thoughtful writers today if we didn’t read the work of those who came before us?
I was saddened to read Meredith Mason’s criticism of the Dog-Eared Page in the July 2010 Correspondence. Of course we can look for beauty and inspiration in contemporary works, but that doesn’t preclude reviewing the works of the past for insight. Wisdom is hard enough to come by; why eliminate any opportunity to find it?
The Dog-Eared Page makes me want to go back and read more from these authors of the past. I’m always struck by how relevant their writings are today. The human condition hasn’t changed much.
I may have to stop reading The Sun for the same reason I gave up Irish novels — too damn depressing! I’d like to see you go three issues without publishing anything about suicide, addiction, cancer, family dysfunction, child abuse, or any of the other recurring themes that are usually not as inspiring as you think. The only exception to this rule would be if you can find more writers as funny as Marjorie Kemper and Sparrow. It’s a fine line between inspiration and self-absorption.
My daughter lends me her copies of The Sun, which I always read with great interest, even though I don’t often identify with the authors and narrators. I was especially impressed with the short story “At Prayer Level,” by Marjorie Kemper [July 2010]. I have read it three times already, something I rarely do with current fiction. It is beautifully written, and I am sorry to hear that this talented author has died.
When I mentioned to my daughter that I thought “At Prayer Level” was the best story I have ever read in The Sun, she asked why. I thought for a moment and replied, “Because it is about normal people.”
Although I can appreciate the cynical humor in Gillian Kendall’s account of her silent retreat at Esalen [“Not Another Word,” July 2010], what comes through most is her lack of understanding of what she was trying to do there, assuming she was trying to do anything at all.
What was her goal entering into this meditation retreat? Why did she not prepare by acquainting herself with the approach offered at Esalen? Why was she unable to adjust her attitude to the conditions once there? The explanation is probably quite simple: Kendall, like so many self-centered writers, is an eccentric artiste who is completely identified with her thoughts and her need to “voice” them and who believes this uncontrollable and pathological talking to oneself is original and clever.
Gillian Kendall’s “Not Another Word” might be the longest Zen koan ever written. It failed to induce satori in me, but it came close. It did induce loud laughter, the next best thing.
I’ve been to retreats like the one Kendall describes, and, believe me, she perfectly captures what is going on in the minds of the participants as they stroll silently back and forth, heads bowed, internally chanting their mantras: “Let me out of here.”
I like to think of myself as an open-minded teenager, challenging the world around me. At seventeen it’s easy to think I’ve lived long enough to have settled beliefs about age-old arguments, but of course I haven’t. And maybe I never will. Every time I read an essay or reflect on a photograph in The Sun, I’m reminded that there are interesting people alive and awake in the world today, and I want to be one of them. No matter what I do with my life, what I study, or where I go, The Sun will remain a part of it.