Friday, January 8, 2010

Feeling for the Organism

The freezing wind blows fiercely on Chambers Street in lower Manhattan. I climb the stairs and follow the directions from My destination: Battery Park Regal Cinema. The day before, I'm talking with my buddy Edward at Ten Ren Tea and he tells me about a new movie called Avatar. The word sounds remotely familiar.

(Cosmic Dancer by Judy Seicho Fleischman)

I surf to Wikipedia and read:
In Hinduism, Avatar or Avatāra (Devanagari अवतार, Sanskrit for "descent" [viz., from heaven to earth]) refers to a deliberate descent of a deity from heaven to earth, and is mostly translated into English as "incarnation", but more accurately as "appearance" or "manifestation".

2. An embodiment, as of a quality or concept; an archetype
3. a movable image that represents a person in a virtual reality environment or in cyberspace

Intrigued, the next day, I make my way downtown. Exiting the subway in the vicinity of Wall Street, I hear loud hammering sounds in the distance. As wind and bright sunlight flood between canyon walls shaped by skyscrapers, I feel revived. Everything seems big and small at the same time. Everyone is moving, all of us absorbed in the pulse of activity.

Barbara McClintock, the famed geneticist who discovered that genes are transposable (can move around) and thus play a critical role in the development of an organism; described a quality, which resonates with my experience today. She spoke of this quality as "a feeling for the organism."

She wrote:

"It never occurred to me that there was going to be any stumbling block. Not that I had the answer, but [I had] the joy of going at it. When you have that joy, you do the right experiments. You let the material tell you where to go, and it tells you at every step what the next has to be because you're integrating with an overall brand new pattern in mind."

What comes to mind right now is very simple. Keep moving. Stay warm. Walking by a flurry of construction in the vicinity of Ground Zero, I hear a man bundled in sweats call out to one of the workers: "Hey, what's this one gonna be?" I can't hear the response as the wind picks up. I see the thumbs-up from the curious passerby as he rebundles and hurries on.

The cold brings my attention to bare essentials. I wrap my scarf tightly around my nose and mouth and keep going. I check for street signs. Finally, thinking I'm close yet still not seeing the goal, I ask for help. Entering a Bagel store, I ask the person behind the counter. She replies in a tone, which indicates she's heard this request before. She says, "it's the next door down."

I thank her, exit and walk over as she directed. Now I see it.

The place is empty. I'm the only one in line. Monday matinee. I head up the escalator into an expansive atrium. I sit on a comfy bench covered in leatherette beside a sleek subtle pool of water, which softly gurgles as water spills over its edge. Beside it stands a small grove of bamboo extending 10 feet high and climbing, imperceptible though this might be to human eyes. Huge as this atrium is, the ceiling is nowhere in sight.

Through the gigantic windows, I see the Irish Hunger Memorial, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the Great Irish Famine and as the Parks Conservancy describes, "a reminder that hunger today is often due to lack of access to land." Someone is walking out there along an uphill path by what looks to be ruins of a stone cottage. Gazing out, I wonder, "What is it about a place that draws you to it? What is native habitat to a traveler?"

Seeing folks heading towards the theater snaps me out of mind musing. A sequence of escalators leads us to our destination. I enter and sit down. The lights darken. The film begins inauspiciously without credits. I only realize this is the film and not a trailer when I see fellow travelers putting on their 3D glasses. I put on mine. The vivid images and expansive sound quickly draw me into the story, or more accurately, into the world presented.

I enter that world. I feel my breath shifting, my eyes widening, my heart beating in sync with those of characters and the environment, which they inhabit. This is like no film I have experienced before.

When the film ends, my body feels the sensation of travelling without having physically moved from the seat. It's not just technology. The experience of sensing motion and stillness simultaneously continues when the movie ends. It reflects a shift in me. I feel happy, vibrantly calm, and connected. I feel the stirring of thoughts, questions arising. These I notice with a curious alert openness, which doesn't need to pursue them. I'm drawn instead to walk briskly outdoors, which I do for some time.

Later that day, my sister tells me about controversy surrounding the film, notably its portrayal of indigenous people. As we talk, I realize the openness remains as I attune with no need to defend a position. I feel free.

Days after this, I am visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibit, closing soon, entitled, Art of the Samurai. The description speaks of the distinction between the outer tools of the warriors, such as their armor and weaponry, and the inner tools, so to speak, expressed through their practice of tea ceremony and meditation. Walking and hearing people's impressions, I am troubled by what appears to be contradiction. For me, making peace with the warrior and more precisely, with war, is not easy.

Three days earlier, sitting in a class entitled, "Be the Change," I'm practicing a method called, "Non-Violent Communication," developed by Marshall Rosenburg, Ph.D. It is offered jointly by Thom Bond, trainer with The New York Center for Non-Violent Communication and Rick Ulfick, Founder of We the World. We are gathered in small groups called "empathy circles" practicing how to identify feelings and needs. Thom tells us that with practice, "what changes is the depth of relationship to feelings and needs. You can just care for them without needing to fill in the blanks. We can start acting based on that consciousness, in congruence with our values."

I share a moment of great difficulty, which keeps troubling me. Friends in circle offer empathy. They're not caught in the story. They're naming feelings and needs. While helpful, nothing truly resonates. Then, a man sitting beside me asks as he meets my gaze, "Are you feeling overwhelmed because you're needing compassion?" My eyes widen. "Yes," I reply. The tension in my chest, suddenly pierced, now loosens as the sensation of tears arises. Amazingly, crying is not necessary. The sensation expands into open awareness which holds all the people who had been locked in a story of mind including "me." The release is spontaneous. Now able to experience compassion for everyone, "they" and "I" seem like a dream. All that's real is the sensation of breathing as vast space itself.

After class, I head downstairs, joined by friends. The night is cold. We say goodnight. I bundle up and head where my feet are leading. Entering the video store, I browse and on an impulse, rent a film I've never heard of before, drawn to its title, The Snow Walker, and the photo of a man running with a herd of caribou.

Days later, after seeing the Samurai Exhibit, I go home and watch this film, which is based on a short story by Farley Mowat, entitled, "Walk Well, my Brother." Two strangers, a man and woman, walk together, struggling to survive in Canada's vast tundra after his plane crashes in the early 1950's. The man, a WWII veteran fighter pilot, is transporting a very young Inuit woman who is ill with Tuberculosis after her family pays him with two treasured Walrus tusks. He is haunted in a recurring nightmare of the moment he dropped bombs on a city. In a pivotal scene, portrayed poignantly in the movie, they are trying to communicate, knowing only fragments of one another's language. She tells him that night, "all things..." and gestures, exhaling. He responds, "breathe? Everything breathes?" also exhaling. She nods yes and continues, "when you die," and says a word, gesturing. Based on events earlier that day, he guesses, "you need your tools" as she gestures to indicate the same thing.

Much later in the journey, he finds himself again in the dream. This time, a hand reaches out to hold his just as he's about to push the bomb-release button. He drops the mechanism. His eyes meet hers. She is sitting beside him as co-pilot. He wakes up. Out on the chilly tundra, she's shaking him and handing him a makeshift spear. Together, they run towards a herd of caribou. She falls, too weak to hunt, and urges him on, shouting and pointing. He runs with the pack and kills one, then another, three in all. The meat and hide provide the food and garments needed for the rest of the journey.

I sense no hatred, no confusion, no distance. He's right there and so am I.

After the film ends, I sit in the darkness and open to stillness.

No questions remain. I am home.