The First Practice: Learning to love what I love

The Red Thread

Songyuan asked, Why can’t clear-eyed Bodhisattvas sever the red thread?

When I was in my early thirties, a ragtag group of friends and family assembled weekly in my living room to meditate. Our teacher was a recovering alcoholic and self-identified Sufi who taught us glorious chants. We’d sing and sing and sink into a silence unlike any I’d ever known.

Then one day our Sufi announced that he had fallen in love and was giving up meditation for sex. The rest of us decided to keep meeting for meditation but I pondered our teacher’s remarks for a long time. Are sex and meditation not compatible? 

His decision brought back the frames of my childhood religious education. Catholic grade school in the sixties didn’t particularly support the idea that holiness and physical joy could co-exist—or maybe those holy folks who were sexually active just didn’t make it into The Lives of the Saints. Certainly, the saints extolled by my teachers leaned heavily toward celibacy and virginity. 

The problem, of course, was that an education like that can lead you to believe that not just sex but any passionate attachment is suspect.

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One of the most clarifying moments of my spiritual life happened about a dozen years ago when I heard a guru-type mock an old woman for her attachment to some trinkets. A desperately poor Indian widow, she’d brought her dowry—a few small silver charms, her only valuables—to a retreat, where they’d been stolen. The community had responded by collecting money for her, an amount far exceeding the value of her loss. Even with this largesse, she was inconsolable; it was this sorrow that occasioned the teacher’s scorn. 

That teacher never seemed to understand that those few silver charms were the widow’s only tangible connection to her children, husband, and parents, now all dead. That it might be appropriate to mourn, at least for a while. I got so angry at the lack of human compassion that I spent the entire afternoon walking and committing myself, over and over again, to love this world and its inhabitants. I kept repeating, “I will not abandon my sisters. I will not abandon my brothers.” 

That man’s take on detachment was not unique: I have run into the same distorted thinking in 12-step meetings, churches, ashrams, and temples. It’s understandable, as the possible meanings of “detachment” run the gamut from indifference to even-handedness. But using the concept of detachment to denigrate or ignore someone else’s pain and suffering is wrong, no matter how you define it. 

This is not about being a flat-lander, a person who thinks that the material world is all there is. We can understand that this world is just a time-space way to experience energy and still commit to living as though this reality matters. The way to the fullness—God or Nirvana or Nothingness or Holy Mystery or whatever you call it—is through life, not around it. 

Teresa of Calcutta wanted God to break her heart so completely that the whole world falls in. The Zen Buddhist Songyuan was certain that clear-eyed Bodhisattvas could never sever the red thread. Both Mother Teresa and Songyuan knew that passionate attachment—that red thread—is meant to lead us to compassion, that love and joy and life and heartache can unlatch the door that appears to close us off from the Infinite.

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On Bonnie Raitt’s album Souls Alike, she sings a song called “Trinkets.” It’s a strange little number about being a kid who loves a record by Louis Armstrong, a picture by Vincent Van Gogh, and her daschund. I don’t know what, if any, religious convictions Bonnie Raitt holds. But in “Trinkets,” when she names love as the central and most important way of being alive, she nails it as well as Mother Teresa and Songyuan. The song’s bridge goes like this: 

                        And if I get older, if I ever die, 

                        If I get to a gate at the end of the sky, 

                        And a beautiful creature says, “Now Bonnie, what do you want?”  

                        Might say, “A record and picture and a wiener dog, swear to God.”

My answer to the question “What do you want?” would be different than Bonnie Raitt’s, although I must admit that any catalog of what I love would include my dog Dolly. (More truthfully, Dolly and all my dear departed dogs.) But what’s on the list doesn’t really matter; it’s having a list that counts. We have to learn what love feels like before we can enact it. We have to start with a firm hold on the red thread.

When I know how it feels to really love—not simply to crave something but to risk being broken wide open—that is the beginning of experiencing Love. Real Love, the kind that longs for the wholeness of the other, that simply appreciates the other as they are, leaves us completely undefended. From that vulnerable place, we can be drawn out of the small self to the far reaches of eternity, into the depth and joy of the Love that moves the sun and other stars. We enter into the Divine Mystery even as Divine Mystery beats within our chest.

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As for my Sufi teacher, I have come to understand that he never intended to give up his spiritual practice; he simply intended to use the joy of the body and the piercing depth of love as his practice. It’s one way to the Holy! Just like a record and a picture and a wiener dog. Swear to God.

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COPYRIGHT 2024 Mary Therese DesCamp

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