Archive for July, 2012

In Mid-Spin

In Mid-Spin

by Susan Downing

Turns out that Mr. Spider was Mrs. Spider. (See my previous post, “Out of the Threads of the Past” for the story of how I came to be acquainted with this arachnid.)  I’d been watching the nightly web-building for nearly two weeks.  Some nights I’d seen a smaller version of my web-builder hanging out at the top of the web, but I wasn’t quite sure what that was all about.  So naïve of me!  Because at the beginning of last week, gazing out through the glass of my slider door, I noticed five tiny little spiders in the same spot where the big spider spun its nightly web.

These little ones were just like the big one, except super tiny. So small I could barely see them.  But once I did, all the details fell into place (with a little help from the internet.) Of course!  The big spider was the female, and the one hanging out above was the male.  Had I seen an egg sac around, I would have gotten the picture earlier.

For the next couple of days I delighted in watching the little ones.  At night they’d build tiny webs at the corners of mom’s.  (I wondered how they could possible eat anything that might fly into their webs, and then I learned that baby spiders feed on nectar at first.)  Like most young’ns I’ve known, these spider toddlers got up much earlier than their parents and took advantage of their temporary freedom to race around and play house. A couple of them would hang out in their own webs, while the others crept along remnants of their mom’s.  All of them seemed to be saying, Hey, look at us, we’re here on this web.  We’re cool! We know what we’re doing!  We’re tough! We’ll eat you if you get too close!

That phase lasted only a few days.  By week’s end, they were gone, off to explore the world on their own, I guess.  But Mrs. Spider was still there, spinning her nightly web, and Mr. Spider would make occasional appearances, too.

A few evenings ago, once darkness had fallen, I walked over to the slider doors and, as had become my habit, flipped on the outside light to see what Mrs. Spider was up to.  There she was, spinning the top anchor line for her web.  I turned off the light and went about my business.  When I returned a bit later to check her progress, I noticed that she was still working on that same line.  That was odd.  Usually she’d have her whole web done by now.  I leaned a little closer and noticed that she wasn’t moving.  At all.  At first I though she had just paused in her work, hanging from the line for a moment.  Then, leaning close to the glass to get the closest possible look, I saw that three of her little legs were curled up in the way you see dead spiders’ legs curled.

Aside from the curled up legs, she looked quite alive.  One front leg was gracefully, even elegantly, stretched out, lightly touching the web, while her back legs also still seemed somehow poised, in mid-step. In Charlotte’s Web, Charlotte the spider knows when death is approaching.  She tells her friend Wilbur the pig, “I’m done for. In a day or two I’ll be dead. I haven’t strength enough to climb into the crate. I doubt if there is enough silk in my spinnerets to lower me to the ground.”

Who knows whether Mrs. Spider sensed the end coming in some way.   It didn’t look that way to me. It seemed that she’d gone out as usual that night to build her web, and then, suddenly, death had taken her totally by surprise.  Or perhaps she had some unusual sensation, but just kept to her routine anyway.  As if denying the possibility that she might not complete her web that night.

Although I know that Mrs. Spider certainly didn’t engage in conscious reflection on her own experience of approaching death, it’s quite possible that she was aware that something was amiss, even if she didn’t express this the way Charlotte did.  And in keeping to her routine, denying the approach of death by spinning up until the very last second, Mrs. Spider seems a lot more like us humans than does Charlotte, despite the literary spider’s eloquence.  For when Wilbur the pig responds in a very human way to his friend’s announcement, with grief and denial, Charlotte says to him, “Come now, let’s not make a scene. Be quiet, Wilbur. Stop thrashing about.”

Who among us humans would be able to muster Charlotte’s sense of peace as death approaches, consoling our loved ones as they fall apart beside us?  It seems a rare achievement to me, to die without fighting it, to accept it as the inevitability it is.  Accepting a loved one’s death with equanimity is often more than we can manage, too.  It can also give us pause when animals die. And so I, realizing that Mrs. Spider had died, felt sad.  Partly because I had grown fond of her, but more because she seemed to unprepared for death, taken by surprise, and because this is the way we humans mostly die, too.

Before Charlotte dies, she enlists Wilbur’s help: she asks him to safeguard her egg sac so that her babies will not perish.   She tells him, “This is my egg sac, my magnum opus, my great work, the finest thing I have ever made.”  Wilbur carries out Charlotte’s last wish, and one fine morning, the tiny newborn spiders begin climbing out of this sac in a corner of the barn.

Given this joyful moment of new life at the end of the book, it’s easy to conclude that Charlotte managed to approach death with remarkable acceptance because she knew that she had done what she’d come into her life to do: to produce that egg sac.  But the young reader’s response to Charlotte’s death, and our responses to loved ones’ deaths, and whatever visceral response we have when we think about having to die ourselves some day – that grief or fear or denial is not something that will vanish as soon as we remind ourselves that the deceased achieved something in life that we see as valuable.  We use that reminder to distract ourselves from the very real grief or fear we’re feeling.  Because it can be too terrifying to think of death itself, of the moment when we ourselves can be unexpectedly taken by death.

The Tibetan Buddhist teachings called the Lam Rim (“Stages of the Path”) talk at length about death, its inevitability and its unpredictability:

“You will not get a message warning you, “Now prepare to die.” Death will strike suddenly one day and you will just have to leave whatever you are doing.  Even simple monks have to stop drinking butter tea, eating barley flour or noodles and go to their next life: this shows how uncertain the time of death is.

Grasping at permanence tricks you into thinking you have many years left, but the day will come when you will die.  People who will die from illness today are still thinking, “I will not die today.””

The Lam Rim makes such a big deal of the uncertainty and inevitability of death because knowing we’ll die, believing that we really will die, can prompt us to study and practice the Dharma:

The great risk is: before the tomorrow when

You were going to practice Dharma comes,

The time for you to die will come today.

So do not let your head be turned;

If you would practice Dharma,

Do it from today.

And His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in his book Becoming Enlightened, explains the benefit such practice will give us:

“The fragility of life calls us to make a decision to implement spiritual practice right now.  Religion is not physical.  Although both physical and verbal virtuous actions are important, religion is a matter of mental transformation.  This means not just understanding something new but suffusing your mental continuum with this knowledge in order to tame your unruly mind and put it in the service of virtue.  This means that you must practice now. If you do whatever you can at the present juncture to transform your mind, then even sickness and pain while you are dying will not disturb the strong sense of peace, firm like a mountain, deep in your mind.”

The Lam Rim tells us that the Dharma is “your guide, captain and provisions for your journey when you die.”  It says that if we don’t practice, when we die, our death will be no different from that of a “stray dog in an alley.”

Or perhaps from that of a spider who perishes in mid-spin.

Now, the very night Mrs. Spider died, as she still hung there on the one completed strand of her web, a small spider busied itself weaving its own web in the corner.  But the next night, Mr. Spider took center stage, spinning a web right where Mrs. Spider’s had always hung.  And he’s been there every night since. There’s something comforting about that, I guess, a sense of familial continuity, just like the nice warm feeling I had when I watched the baby spiders begin their life of weaving.  But that’s not the essence of what I see in this story.

Mrs. Spider’s nightly spinning reminded me that we can transform our mind and our life by making good use of all that we learn as we travel through cyclic existence.  Her seemingly sudden death reminded me just how urgent it is to prepare for death by practicing and living out the Dharma.  That way we’ll be able to look back on a life we can be proud of, and we’ll also be able to leave the this life with genuine peace of mind, instead of thrashing about like a terrified moth unexpectedly trapped in one of Mrs. Spider’s webs.


New York, London, Paris, Munich

New York, London, Paris, Munich

by Jeffrey Brooks

In 1957 pop star Nat King Cole had a hit with his song “When I Fall In Love.” The younger brothers and sisters of the World War II generation were growing up and falling in love and learning how to make their way to adulthood.

He sang

When I fall in love it will be forever
Or I’ll never fall in love
In a restless world like this is
Love is ended before it’s begun
And too many moonlight kisses
Seem to cool in the warmth of the sun

When I give my heart it will be completely
Or I’ll never give my heart
And the moment I can feel that you feel that way too
Is when I fall in love with you.

(All these performances are on You Tube. It’s hard to get what’s happening in the song just from the lyrics so you might want to check them out.)

The poetic couplet about the moonlight kisses, corny as it might seem now, shows that in the convention of this kind of song the intelligence and artfulness and tenderness of the singer matters.  With this, and through each verse, the lyric conducts a romantic persuasion beyond just yearning. The intention is a lifetime of committed love.

“The Way You Look Tonight” was written in 1936, but it was covered dozens of times by everyone from Frank Sinatra to the collegiate vocal quartet the Lettermen, who had a hit with it in 1961. This was the year of the Berkeley Free Speech movement, the post-beat, pre-hippie moment of Jack Kerouac and the Red menace.

But for most of the pop music-buying public this retro cover captured how they felt about love. In this song, still popular in the early 60’s, he rapture of romantic love was expressed as an appreciation of the qualities of a specific individual person.

They sang:

Some day, when I’m awfully low,
When the world is cold,
I will feel a glow just thinking of you
And the way you look tonight.

Yes you’re lovely, with your smile so warm
And your cheeks so soft,
There is nothing for me but to love you,
And the way you look tonight.

With each word your tenderness grows,
Tearing my fear apart
And that laugh that wrinkles your nose,
It touches my foolish heart.

Lovely, never, ever change.
Keep that breathless charm.
Won’t you please arrange it?
Cause I love you, just the way you look tonight.

(The Lettermen’s version is not close to the best but the fact that it was popular in 1961 matters here.  There are plenty of elegant versions to listen to.)

In 1967, one of the most popular songs of the year was the Motown hit “I Second That Emotion,” by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. No need to take the pun in the title too seriously, because it was just for fun even then.

But if you are inclined you can see that the song is about following the rules and the title is a reference to Robert’s Rules of Order, one of the most beloved manuals of parliamentary procedure ever created.  (Debate could be halted by a motion from the floor requiring a vote on the matter at hand, only if the motion was seconded from the floor.  That was a way to prevent a lone individual from undermining the deliberations.) The reference would have been clear to citizens, students organizing student government or clubs, or anyone who had learned some of the ways in which human beings learned to work together even when they disagreed, instead of screaming or killing each other, like thugs.

This was just as the Great Society welfare programs were about to gut the family, depreciate men, valorize (and fund) multi-generational single motherhood; it was four years before Roe v. Wade, and it communicated a man’s right to choose, at least to take the responsibility to do the right thing. And it communicated the importance of self-restraint and a committed relationship to the kids who listened to it. And this was no prudish self-restraint. You watch Smokey Robinson sing this and you will see that he understands the suffering that inevitably follows the withdrawal of pleasurable experience. And he builds his insight into the hurt that comes from sloppy self indulgence and the psychology that produces it, verse by verse:

Maybe you want to give me kisses sweet
But only for one night with no repeat
Maybe you’d go away and never call
And a taste of honey is worse than none at all

Oh little girl, in that case I don’t want no part
That would only break my heart
Oh, but if you feel like loving me
If you got the notion
I second that emotion
Said, if you feel like giving me
A lifetime of devotion
I second that emotion

Maybe you think that love would tie you down
You ain’t got the time to hang around
Maybe you think that love was made for fools
So it makes you wise to break the rules

Oh little girl, in that case I don’t want no part
That would only break my heart
Oh, but if you feel like loving me
If you got the notion
I second that emotion
Said, if you feel like giving me
A lifetime of devotion
I second that emotion

And he mentions “breaking the rules” and he is referring to pre-marital sex or one night stands. These were soon quaint rules. There were strains on them.  Soon they ceased to be rules at all.  But for him and his millions of listeners, in 1967, this was a real issue and he had something to teach.

Then the deluge.

For example in 1970 Steven Stills releases “Love The One You’re With.” This was the year after Woodstock, dorms were full of weed, heads were full of acid, the streets were full of war protesters, and the stock market was rising like the morning sun.

It was the 1971 Crosby Stills and Nash version that everyone heard and learned and lived by. (At first it seemed like freedom. Ask anyone.)
Lyrics from: ]
If you’re down and confused
And you don’t remember who you’re talking too
Concentration slips away
Cause you’re baby is so far away

Well there’s a rose in the fisted glove
And eagle flies with the dove
And if you can’t be with the one you love honey
Love the one you’re with

Don’t be angry – don’t be sad
Don’t sit crying over good times you’ve had
There’s a girl right next to you
And she’s just waiting for something to do

Turn your heartache right into joy
Cause she’s a girl and you’re a boy
Get it together come on make it nice
You ain’t gonna need anymore advice

In this case the poetic couplet – the rose in the fisted glove, etc. – isn’t coherent and isn’t even English. But it fit within the convention of stoned, Dylanesque obscurity. It was acceptable and it was not the part of the song anyone was paying attention to.

The same year, 1971, Carole King’s song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” was a kind of anthem for listeners who thought it expressed what was in their hearts with utter honesty.

(It was a hit again a few years ago when it was covered by Amy Winehouse in a sincere sounding version she recorded just before she died at 27.)

It is a song full of longing and hope. It is stylish in a tin pan alley sort of way. But there is nothing more than hope in it. No volition. None of Smokey Robinson’s decision-making.  It presumes helplessness, as if there was nothing you could do but hook up and hope for the best. It has the intense yearning every gambler and drunk can relate to.

Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow

Tonight you’re mine completely,
You give your love so sweetly,
Tonight the light of love is in your eyes,
But will you love me tomorrow?

Is this a lasting treasure,
Or just a moment’s pleasure,
Can I believe the magic of your sighs,
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Tonight with words unspoken,
You said that I’m the only one,
But will my heart be broken,
When the night
Meets the morning sun.

I’d like to know that your love,
Is love I can be sure of,
So tell me now and I won’t ask again,
Will you still love me tomorrow?
Will you still love me tomorrow?

Naïve, self indulgent and without the benefit of either a psychology or social structure that could guide her to a healthy stable romantic relationship and life. If it was a one-time thing maybe she could learn from it. But it does not seem that that is how the song was heard or used.

Then came disco. In 1976 a hit song sung by a porn performer called Andrea True captured the moment: over the top sex, and musical performance with a strange, anesthetized affect. This song and this sound were the soundtrack for an era of cocaine and cruising, Saturday Night Fever and Boogie Nights:  The mention of ardent love for a particular person in pop music was gone. Intoxicated by massive amounts of anonymous sex, partiers had to crank it up with drugs and porn and that is what pop music described:

Ooh, how do you like my love
Ooh, how do you like my love
But if you want to know
How I really feel

Just get the cameras rolling
Get the action going
Baby you know my love for you is real
Take me where you want to

Then my heart you’ll steal
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more

How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
Ooh, how do you like my love

Ooh, how do you like my love
And if you want to know
What it means to me
Just hear the rhythm grooving

Get your body moving
Baby you know my love for you is true
Any time you want to
Do what you gotta do

More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it

More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like your love
Baby you know my love for you is real
Take me where you want to

Then my heart you steal
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more

How do you like it, how do you like it
More, more, more
How do you like it, how do you like your love

A celebration of tab a and slot b. Not a hint of wit, or a gesture of seduction.  Nothing personal.

No need to trace the decline further: the generations that came of age in the 70’s and onwards were relentlessly advised by these values and examples. It is like that now, even more so.

Americans of the early and mid 20th Century lived through economic difficulties. They had to work hard to live and to maintain their dignity. This showed in their love songs, and the ideals they aspired to in their relationships. The songs were sweet at a time when life was hard.

The generations that served in WWII and the conflicts that followed understood that evil spreads if you don’t stop it, and they participated in stopping it.

Since then generations have come and gone who have been crippled by the comforts won by those earlier generations. While many have trained hard, studied hard, worked hard, and behaved with courage and decency, many have lost their way.

Subsequent generations believed they were wealthy enough to bribe their way out of difficulty; to appease tyrants and buy off discontents. They were wrong. Now the money is gone and the difficulties, the tyrants, and the discontents are stronger and more numerous.

People in the past few generations have been exploited by mass media; by producers who know they can pander to our weaknesses and desires – who know that we will pay and they will make money; they do this so they themselves can indulge, on a large scale, the same weaknesses and desires they have encouraged in all of us.

My generation was poisoned by the music we listened to and the values we absorbed. One of my professors, Neil Postman, wrote a book called “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” We have just about done it.

Contrary to what we were told, it turns out that people like to have a stable family to take care of and which they can depend on to take care of them, out of love, not out of contractual obligation, and not until something better comes along.

It is evident now that people want to have purposeful work, and have that work recognized and rewarded. We want to share our sense of purpose with our community and face the difficulties that arise together with others, and do it with courage and skill.

But to achieve this, good values and skills have to be taught and modeled, and they have to be learned.

If we neglect to create mature individuals, healthy families and communities then people will be unhappy. They will seek some way to overcome their loneliness and their uselessness.

A life of subsidy, pop music, movies, games and computers drain the life out of people, humiliate them, making them paranoid and angry.

They join gangs and become thugs that use violence on people weaker than themselves. They have affairs and become thugs that use sex without regard to others. They trick people and exploit them for money, through scams and advertising, as economic thugs.

As all these thugs, high and low, spread their values, our society declines. The connections between people dissolve. People get lonely.

Their minds fill with malignancy. Some will go looking for a target. Tall buildings. Movie audiences. Cities. Nations. There is no end to it.

Unless we put an end to it.

Let’s prepare now to do right: to act kindly when we can and courageously when we need to.

If decent people stick together, the thugs won’t disappear in a day, but they will never get a chance to take a second shot at stardom.


Out of the Threads of the Past

Out of the Threads of the Past

by Susan Downing

One night a couple of weeks ago, I happened to glance out the slider door that leads to my back porch.  Glimpsing something moving on the outside of the glass, I flipped on the porch light to get a better look.  It was a good thing that it was on the outside of the glass, because otherwise I would have really freaked out: a spider that looked just like a black widow except for being brown, was busily building his web.

Once I’d determined that, despite his bulbous abdomen, this fellow was a common orb-weaving spider, I stood there watching his progress for quite a while, long enough to see him complete enough of a web to catch a small moth and a tiny green stinkbug.  The next morning when I got up, there was no sign of Mr. Spider, his dinner, or his web.

The next night, he was back.  As he has been every night since then, with the same pattern of activity: build the web after nightfall, catch dinner and eat it.  But what happened to the web?  Why and how did it mysteriously (at least to me) vanish before the break of dawn each day?  The spot is pretty sheltered, and it seemed unlikely that it would be so fragile as to disintegrate within a matter of hours.  Was it an engineering flaw?

Until the other night, this seemed to me the most likely explanation.  I have observed Mr. Spider’s construction techniques, and I can tell you, those first few days, I was not surprised at all that the web didn’t last until morning. He would race helter-skelter, throwing anchor lines here and there, and then, in a breathless frenzy, connect them with other lines, using a pattern that seemed to have no rhyme or reason.  There were large gaps between the strands.  I was amazed that he caught any dinner at all those nights.

Then one night toward the end of the first week, when I turned on the porch light as usual to see what Mr. Spider was up to, I was surprised to see that in place of the crazy quilt webs of days past, he was methodically laying down a spiral of web atop the anchor lines.  Now this looked like a spider web! There were still a fair amount of space between the lines, but the whole effect was entirely different, both in the web that was taking shape and in Mr. Spider’s approach to the work: he was taking his time, step by step, carefully fixing each segment in place before moving on to the next.  By the following night, he’d tightened up the pattern, and his meticulous work paid off: a seven-course meal awaited him by the time I went to sleep.

But in the morning, again – no more web.  I was puzzled.  Certainly these new webs were sturdier.  Could they really not survive?  If he himself had taken it down, why on earth would he choose to do that and have to rebuild it again on each subsequent night?  It seemed so inefficient – a waste of time, energy and silk.

Evidently, I am not the first to be confounded by such questions, because the internet is full of discussion of whether spiders can learn to build better webs (they can!) and whether they rebuild them daily (some do, including my orb-weaving spider!) and why.  Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the last question:

Many orb-weavers build a new web each day. Generally, towards evening, the spider will consume the old web, rest for approximately an hour, then spin a new web in the same general location. Thus, the webs of orb-weavers are generally free of the accumulation of detritus common to other species.

It turns out that this process not only results in a new, pristine web every night, but has an added benefit: because the web silk is very high in protein, consuming it provides the spider with essential nourishment.  So, he feeds himself on the threads of his past web and then uses the energy he gains from them to consciously and carefully construct a new web.  A fresh start each time around.

One morning a few days ago, as I sat at my table, gazing out through the slider door from which Mr. Spider’s web had once again vanished, I began to see the webs and Mr. Spider’s approach to them as a metaphor for the process of moving through countless lifetimes.  With each new rebirth, the old life seems to be gone.  We may think we’re starting from scratch each time.  But we can’t say that about each of our lives any more than Mr. Spider could say that about each of his webs.  The past life is done, but its effects and usefulness are not exhausted.  We can make conscious, purposeful use of the elements of the past: we can begin to recognize the threads of unhelpful habits that have stretched from past lifetimes into this and learn to transform them, like spinning straw into gold.

And it isn’t only with each new life that we have this opportunity. We can see our missteps, nourish ourselves with the insights they offer, and then, every day, every moment, we can reweave the web of our life.


The Human Realm

The Human Realm

by Jeffrey Brooks

Some of the realms of existence are visible to us – the human realm and the animal realm – the others we can only imagine. But each of the realms of existence is governed by a specific state of mind. In the heaven realm the heavenly beings are beautiful and are governed by feelings of pleasure. They live in ecstasy, until the good karma they have collected by their past good deeds is used up, and they descend to rebirth in a lower realm.

The titans are powerful and are governed by envy.

The animals live by instinct and seek food and shelter.

The hungry ghosts are deformed and they are desperate for nourishment.

The inhabitants of hell feel only pain – physical torment, mental torment, and despair.

All these beings inhabit those realms due to the things they have done, said and thought in the past. And all will move to another realm when the karma that has cast them into their realm is used up. The hell beings will ascend, the heaven beings will fall, and all of us have inhabited all these realms, infinite times.

This kind of view was common to many religious traditions in India at the time of the Buddha.

To a modern, scientific person this all sounds made up. We are materialists by training and we believe in nature, science, politics, money and culture. We believe that life is constituted by cells; that consciousness is secreted by cells, and that when our body dies that’s that.

The idea that our world is constructed as the consequence of what we, personally, have done in the past, does not match what we have been taught. But it is worth checking out. It is worth checking whether the materialist worldview we have been taught is accurate. Because it is failing to bring happiness. It is producing a crop of envy, greed, depression, anxiety and despair; and the things we do to hold on to pleasure are causing endless trouble.

As human beings we are ruled by desire. We always want something. We are rarely satisfied. Our minds are disturbed by wanting things and our lives get used up trying to get what we think will make us happy. The attempt to find happiness in this way always fails. But the premise is rarely questioned. Instead of putting an end to desire we just pick a different object to pursue.

This insight underlies the full scope of Buddhist teaching.  The most sophisticated and potent philosophical expression in the history of mankind began with a warrior prince sitting in place and explaining to five yogis this: suffering permeates everyone’s experience; this suffering has a specific cause; since this suffering has a cause it has an end; and that there is a path we can take which leads to that end of suffering.

The Buddha spent the next 45 years of his life following up on this.