I must confess that wherever I am, a large part of my heart always lies in Africa where I was born. Among the tribes in Africa, there is a tradition that I would like to retell:
Soon after her wedding, the young newlywed wife leaves the hustle and bustle of the village and goes out to a quiet place in the surrounding veld. Perhaps she finds a tree under which she sits, or a river beside which she places herself. And there, she listens. She listens for the song of her child that has yet to even be conceived. She listens, perhaps, for the chords, the words, the strain, or the melody of that child.
And when it comes to her, and when she knows it well, she returns to the village and teaches it to her husband. And it is the song that accompanies their lovemaking when the child is conceived. It is the song that the midwives sing around the bed of the birthing mother. And it is the song that she sings when she holds the newborn infant to her breast for the first time; when she feeds it, it may be sung as a lullaby. It is the song the father sings when he holds the child upon coming home from work at night, when together they watch the glorious African sun setting behind the mountains.
It is sung on the birthdays of the child, when the child moves into adolescence and puberty. It is sung together with the song of the spouse on their wedding day. The final times that the song is sung is at the deathbed of the old man and the old woman, and then finally for the very last time, when the body is lowered into its grave, at the funeral.
It was upon a misty mountaintop in Zululand, in a place called Ixopo, that I met Joseph Goldstein for the first time, and where I was introduced to insight meditation practice. Ixopo is where Alan Paton based his novel Cry the Beloved Country. He called it a land more beautiful than the singing of it. For me, meditation practice has become my way of beginning to remember my own song, long forgotten.
For me, my song whispers and calls me to know who I am beyond the self-images, beyond the expectations I have of myself and the expectations that others have of me. Who am I beyond the ideas, and all the labels I carry? Beyond Gavin, the gay man… Gavin, the white South African… Gavin, the person living with AIDS… Gavin, the Certified Public Accountant? Who am I, beyond Gavin, the Buddhist meditation teacher? Or Gavin the author? Who am I beyond the drama and catastrophe of living with AIDS now?
I wish so much to live an honest and authentic life that is true to my song that, thank goodness, at long last begins to emerge from the clouds of forgetfulness that have kept it hidden for so long. And within the melody of my song, I hear the promise of true love, of real happiness, and of that peace which passes all understanding…way beyond the ideas that I have of these things.
These days, the lens through which I experience my life is steadily shifting from darkness into light as I begin to remember the strains of my song and its melody more clearly. The words of that song remind me that who I am, fundamentally, is simply a great and pure love that I long ago forgot. And my song reminds me to remember this constantly.
The love has always been there, hidden, denied, swamped perhaps by the circumstances of my life at times, smothered by fear and confusion, but blessedly ready always to return to the light of day. Gone is what feels, to me, to be the absurd notion that this love needs to be found outside of myself, that it needs to be madly cultivated or accumulated. My song was simply always there. I forgot. And now, I am beginning to remember again.
For me, certainly, the highest expression of love is awareness. To be fully present with oneself and another is the truest love there is. For me, the practice of meditation, the practice of mindfulness, is essentially a practice of love. Unconscious love, I feel, is an impossibility, an oxymoron; it cannot be. To be aware is to love. We forget…and then we remember.
For me, meditation is about becoming more sensitive and more loving. The reverberations of a careless word, or an incautious action, an unloving thought, seem now too painful to ignore. And this deepening sensitivity begins to calibrate, for me, an ever more kind and loving path in life, expressed both inwardly and outwardly in the world. It feels as though love has blossomed into a great kindness in my life, in spite of everything.
As my heart whispers its wisdom more clearly than ever, I trust this stirring way beyond the chattering of my mind. I find myself able to move more fully out into the world, trusting that the resources of my heart are always there.
When I first heard the teachings of the Buddha years ago, it was his wild, radical passion for truth, and his defiance of external authority that got my own blood boiling, and catapulted me on a spiritual journey. “Believe nothing,” he said, “merely because you have been told it, or because it is traditional. Do not believe what your teacher tells you out of respect for your teacher. But when, through your own thorough examination, you find a way leading to good and happiness for all creatures, then follow that path like the moon follows the path of the stars.”
I knew then that his words, spoken two and a half thousand years before, were also speaking to my own broken, confused, and closed heart now. It really inspired me to set forth on my own journey. He was not telling me what to do. He was not telling me what the truth was. And he certainly was not threatening me with damnation or punishment. He was simply suggesting that I listen, look, and find out the truth for myself.
I believe that deep down, in places we are barely aware of, there is for all of us an abiding yearning for connection, for union, and for oneness with each other and with all of life. This thirst for an experience of relatedness, I believe, gives birth to the passion, courage, and effort necessary to begin and continue the spiritual journey. Can we create a place where our hearts and minds might be joined, far beyond the ludicrous notion that we are ultimately isolated, separate, disconnected, and alone?
In this sacred land, when one person is hungry, we are all starving souls. When someone is oppressed, we are all violated. When a woman is imprisoned, we all are in jail with her. When a man is laid off work, or humiliated and ostracized, we share his pain immediately. And when a person is diseased, we are all infected. No one is immune.
In truth, one suffering soul anywhere, I believe, tears each of our hearts apart. We are all a strand of that great web of interconnection out of which none of us could fall, ever. We only think we can. We are not alone. We bleed together. We cry together. We rejoice together. We are infected together. And we heal hand-in-hand, undivided, together always.
We live in a fragile world. We know that life, breath, wellness, hope, joy, pain, are all, in the end, transitory, undependable, and changing. And in the end, the fire of our passage stirs us to the great mystery of life. With courage and strength, listening deeply, hand-in-hand, we set foot together on that succulent ground where we ask the ancient questions:
Who am I? Who is it that dies? What is secure? Why this fear, rage, guilt, and confusion? What is faith? Where is love, joy, kindness? Where is my song?
We journey together to the heart of life. We admit to every cell of our being the inherent insecurity of all we value, treasure and covet. Here nothing is dependable, reliable or stable. In this sacred place, we stand together naked, vulnerable, courageous. And we come, finally, face-to-face with death and all the fear that rages there.
In our willingness to face this truth of our mortality, it is my experience that blessedly, thankfully, and miraculously, we unleash an alchemy of the heart which gives birth to the peace, ease and contentment we always yearned for. The irony is manifest. What we feared most holds the key to our birthright which has eluded us for so long! Coming face to face with death must birth us into a fullness of life unfettered by the thirst for a security and certainty that was an impossibility right from the beginning. Finally, in the end, the joke seems to be on us. In collusion with the fear of our death, we paint a nightmare in our minds and recoil in terror from our handiwork. While all the time, behind and beyond the illusion, ironically, is the promise of all the blessings we’ve prayed so hard for.
I know today, in my life, a degree of contentment, ease, equanimity, quiet joy, and a peace in life that far exceeds my wildest dreams of what I ever thought could be possible for me. And, while my life may seem like the designated tragedy and the identified catastrophe, the big joke, really, is that we all, in the end, are in the same boat. It is just that some of us feel the rocking of the waves a little more distinctly than others.
A few years ago I was admitted to a hospital in Northampton. My temperature was 106.7 degrees. I had pneumonia. My friends and doctors all thought I was checking out, or that I would suffer the irreparable brain damage which usually occurs when fever gets that high. I lost twenty-five pounds. I was drenched in sweat day and night. My mind was dull and I was absolutely exhausted.
In the middle of all of this, one night, I awoke from this nightmare with a jolt. My mind was crystal clear and alert. Surrounding me, in every direction, was a deep comforting velvet blackness. It appeared to have great depth. And below me, stretching way ahead to a pinpoint in the distance, was a river of salmon-apricot colored rose petals. The petals shimmered and glowed in contrast with the pitch black all around me. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I can never forget it.
I was sitting cross-legged a fraction above the river, and I silently and effortlessly skimmed the surface as I slowly moved ahead. At the point where the river disappeared, far, far in the distance, a bright white light shone back towards me. The closer I approached this light, the stronger I felt the impact of it. The white light embraced me with an experience of limitless, full, and absolute unconditional love, quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The closer I got to this light, the deeper the sense of coming home. I felt bathed, saturated and infused with light A feeling of safety and protection embraced me as the light reached out to me, and as I moved towards it. My heart erupted with great joy, as I remembered this great love. Somehow, I had forgotten it, but now I knew it once again. It was old. It was familiar.
At this point my mind got really busy. “This is far out!” I remember thinking, “This is cool! I am dying. It is all so beautiful. I remember this love. I am on my way home. I haven’t suffered all that much really!” I remember feeling a glimmer of self-satisfaction, also. Instantly, I did a 90 degree turn and fell straight into the blackness to my right. My eyes opened and I was back in the hospital bed. Nurses were all around me. There was life-support equipment at my bedside. Clearly there had been some panic. My fever broke and the crisis was over. My overwhelming memory of that night, far more than the visual imagery of it, was of the loving light.
I have no idea, really, what happened. But what I am left with is an unshakable knowing that the movement towards death, for me, is in some unfathomable way a movement to a profound and boundless love long forgotten. At any time I am able to evoke the joy, relief, and gladness I felt that night in hospital. More than ever these days, death feels like a short step, really, from one garden to another, a return to a love long forgotten.
What increasingly defines my life these days, particularly since that night, is an unquenchable thirst to know the deepest and most unconditional love possible within the fire, complexity, and drama of my life now. I believe it is my birthright to know this love expressed both within me, and outside of me; along with, and not defined by, the circumstances in which I live.