(Celestial Arts)"Do not waste your life," the masters advise. "Be awake each moment." And remember most of all that "Impermanence surrounds us."
Unlike most Buddhist tracts I have read, Larkin pays attention to the realities that run us when we start on any spiritual journey: Boredom. Rage. Ecstasy (temporary). Fear. Even fake enlightenment.
Meditation is the key to Buddhism, she assures us. Meditation will, at first, bore us to death, will force us to dig up any and all excuses to drop it. I should be cleaning the kitchen. It's time for lunch. The kids: they will be here soon. And this sitting, trying to shut up the monkey mind ... isn't it silly? She calls it the "What the hell am I doing?" feeling.
I remember feeling so stupid when I started meditating. I was afraid to tell my friends and terrified that one of my kids would walk into the bedroom to find their mother sitting cross-legged on a pile of pillows staring at the floor.
If I had a friend who wanted to start on The Path, I would give them Stumbling. But I would offer it with a caveat. That is --- despite the up-beat language, the professional writing, and the verbal nudges that seem to make it (and her) so accessible --- we should not forget that her school, the Zen school of Buddhism, is hard-line, even puritanical. One might think of it as the Calvinism of eastern religions.
There is little slack. No messing around. Zen monks have to live with very specific rules: how to address the master, how to eat, how to sleep, how, even, to go to the bathroom. There is no respite. "Do not waste your life." For those of us who have a passion (or a passion, even, for a glass of wine with dinner), there are no exceptions. No hanky-panky. No boozing. Period.
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This book first came out twelve years ago. It certainly hasn't gone out of date. Ms. Larkin then, as now, is all business. When she isn't meditating or raising a family or running a Zen Temple (or writing a book or changing the world) does "strategic business planning." And her religion is all business, too.
She was once offered a chance to help a local art association, but then "I remembered that one of the organization's single largest sources of income is a masterful wine auction for which they have become quite well known."
I deal with the effects of alcoholism every day. My father is one ... You may be.
"You may be one," she says, beady-eyeing us. She turned them down.
And the Itch? Ms. Larkin has no problem sharing with us some tales of her past passions, but her advice for now: cool it. If you find yourself lost in a fit of lust, remember it is mara, "a hungry ghost, a being with a huge appetite but only a teeny mouth. Satiation is impossible."
The cure: don't try to suppress it. It never works. Rather, when swamped with passion, "Meditate on the human body." When besieged by thoughts of lust, meditate on "a beautiful body," but also recall the Buddha's advice to his sangha ... "meditate on every orifice, every body part, until the desire subsides."
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Ms. Larkin is brimming with confidence ... and it is infectious. This on anger. "My theory is that we are all totally furious that we had to be born in the first place." She reminds us that anger can be well hidden, that deep hostility hurts the most. It is the one that most deny, one that has to be wrestled out of its hiding place by whatever means possible (confrontation, psychotherapy, soul-searching, meditation.)
As anger opens itself up it shows its real face, which is fear ... and the deeper the anger, the deeper the fear.
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With her masterful summary of the concept of bardo, Larkin's chapter on "Preparing for Death" is as good as it gets. However, there are a few rough passages in Stumbling, ones that might have been revisited with this new edition. Her story of the French poet Robert Desnos saving lives of people as they were on their way to the gas chamber goes a bit overboard: "As Desnos read the palms even the guards began to relax, so disoriented by this burst of positive emotion that they were simply unable to push the crowd into the chambers." She neglects to point out that Desnos died in Theresienstadt concentration camp of typhoid shortly after liberation.
And her take on panic and panic attacks is a little put-downish. She claims to have had two sieges which she beat by sheer will-power. "I had put myself in the monster's mouth, climbed into the belly of the whale, and it was gone." Tell me about it. Me with the three a.m. screaming-meemies, and I put myself in the monster's mouth (as she and various friends told me to do), and ... guess what? It kept on eating me, through the night, well into the day, well into the year. Remember: there are a bevy of people who will tell you that sheer will can conquer disability. For the disabled who have tried, and tried hard ... the very word "will" becomes an ill-disguised obscenity.
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Larkin is, mostly, very good. Her story about meditating with a broken heart --- she calls it a "sobbing meditation" --- is sterling. Her final chapters on Fear, Worry, Shame and Tenacity are priceless. But that dab of Puritanism can put some of us off.