I. You. Love

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I will take my gaze far,
but I will not lose sight of you,
I will not stop searching
for the source of your strength
as I climb into my own,
I will honour each of your breaths,
that takes and gives
and reminds me of the power
of perfect presence.
I will sense the expansion
that is possible in our union,
even if I forget for a time
and think that freedom
lies on distant shores.
I will always come back
and know what opens
in the infinite space between us,
in the space between
our foreheads touching,
eyes meeting,
hearts coming closer.
I will, like a great warrior,
fight each of my dizzying fears
to allow them to come closer,
and I will thank you for waiting,
as you have, as we will,
and so it goes, this well of love.

– Tammy Takahashi

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New Poetry Book: Cover Reveal!

Cover-Land-72-rgb-standing

 

BOOK COVER REVEAL!!

Here it is! With the onset of spring, and also World Happiness Day, World Poetry Day and World Forests Day (wow!), I’m so happy to show you the cover of my new poetry book, LAND! Thank you to Golden Dragonfly Press!

“The poems of ‘Land’ explore our bodies and selves as terrain to be navigated, accepted and loved. Where estrangement meets intimacy, where lost youth meets the inevitability of aging, where fear meets hope, where doubt meets empowerment, where the natural world and the elements as our precious teachers meet our readiness to dive right into our lives—these are the intersections that lie at the heart of this collection, which uncovers a great paradox of our times: adrift, we long to feel truly, completely at home, while knowing deep within that there’s nowhere else we can be; we are already there, exactly where we are.”
—Tammy Takahashi

Please check with me on Twitter at @tammystonetakahashi, and on Facebook here.

Oliver Sacks: Changing the Way we Think about Our Brain can Change the World.

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

 

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.” ~ Oliver Sacks

 

Recently, I was thinking about what the world would be like—or rather, how our perception of it would change—if we were suddenly told that Earth was now called Jupiter, and Jupiter was now called Earth.

How would we think about this other Earth, which we have never seen with our own eyes? How would we re-conceive the new Jupiter, a place now simultaneously “ours,” and yet filled with our imaginings of a place far, far away?

It was reported recently that acclaimed physician, author and professor of Neurology Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as I heard the news, I realized how “Sacksian” my line of questioning above is—how much his ideas, gleaned through readings of his books, have influenced my way of being in the world.

Oliver Sacks has accomplished what very few others have: in addition to his tireless work in the field of neurology, he has managed, through his gifts as a writer and storyteller, to make the brain a fascinating and accessible subject for the layperson (or the “ordinary curious,” as I like to think of us!) I can never put his books down once I start reading them; they are like being led into a vast, incredibly deep and riveting ocean by a gentle, inquisitive and assured guide.

It would be impossible to underestimate how far-reaching the study of the brain is for anybody with a natural curiosity about the world, philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, and virtually every area under the sun. The brain is our incredibly nuanced and mysterious gateway, so we need to know: how does the “normal” brain function?

And, as Sacks has been investigating for decades, what do some of the “abnormal brain conditions” illuminate about the nature of human perception and experience?

What might life look and be like for someone who’s been blind from birth, and has suddenly gained access to sight? (Spoiler: not easy). Sack’s explorations of a rare case of this were turned into the film At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer.

Among some other well-known research topics by Sacks are: encephalitis lethargica, which has people unable to move, sometimes for decades, explored in his book “Awakenings” and the film of the same name, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams; colorblindness; aphasia (the inability to form speech), Tourette’s syndrome; hallucinations; synesthesia, in which the “wires cross” and a person might “see sounds” or “hear colours,” and Korsakov’s syndrome, in which people suffer from memory loss (so that, for example, a 60-year-old might still believe she/he were a 30 year-old).

Many of us will never directly experience any or most of these conditions, but we may well approximate subtle variations of some of them. For example, maybe we haven’t lost our memories of the last twenty years of our lives, but we’ve certainly lost many memories, struggle to remember things, and wonder how much of what we remember is fiction.

We may have “normal” brains, but how is it that we live in a colour world, but can “understand” or process black-and-white films with such ease? It’s really amazing, how much of a “whole” world we can create with some of the “pieces” missing.

This question, as a film student, brought me to one of my favorite filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, who didn’t have synesthesia, but longed to create a synesthetic world on film, where the magical experiences of sight and sound would become all intertwined into a harmonic whole in the viewer’s mind—a sensory world that would cut straight to the emotions.

Most of Eisenstein’s films, because of the era, were made in black-and-white, but he was obsessed by the possibilities colour cinema would open up; reading his dreams about making colour films, you’d think he was talking about voyaging into the entire universe and all its galaxies—such were the horizons one “small switch” in perception could open up. He was an artist and visionary, working with his tool of cinema to grasp at the very limits of what humans, as thinking, perceiving and emoting beings, can do.

For him, film was the grand stage mediating between subject and object, observer and observed, experiencing and experienced. For Oliver Sacks, this grand stage, affording so many possibilities for knowledge and growth, is the human brain.

Using actual case studies, Sacks has fashioned anecdotal scenarios out of the most seemingly bizarre outreaches of brain function, and also out of his impassioned beliefs in the power of music to dig right into our souls, and has allowed us entry into a spellbinding kaleidoscope of human existence. People like the man engaged with in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” who does just that, are an invitation to consider the very broad arenas of human subjectivity, identity, and how we relate to the world through thing like our senses, cognitive abilities, and memory.

It’s a dizzying, tantalizing world Sacks has brought to life for us. Here are just a few of his words and observations. Much more can be found in his collection of books!

On Music, Art and Healing

“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

“There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself. Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised, should not complain if the balance sometimes shifts too far and our musical sensitivity becomes a vulnerability.”

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

“Certainly it’s not just a visual experience – it’s an emotional one. In an informal way I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive to words and disoriented and out of it. I think that recognition of visual art can be very deep.”

On Perception

“Perception is never purely in the present—it has to draw on experience of the past; (…). We all have detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admixed with every new perception.”

On Hallucinations

“With any hallucinations, if you can do functional brain imagery while they’re going on, you will find that the parts of the brain usually involved in seeing or hearing—in perception—have become super active by themselves. And this is an autonomous activity; this does not happen with imagination.

“This usually occurs at the moment when my head hits the pillow at night; my eyes close and…I see imagery. I do not mean pictures; more usually they are patterns or textures, such as repeated shapes, or shadows of shapes, or an item from an image, such as grass from a landscape or wood grain, wavelets or raindrops…transformed in the most extraordinary ways at a great speed. Shapes are replicated, multiplied, reversed in negative, etc. Color is added, tinted, subtracted. Textures are the most fascinating; grass becomes fur becomes hair follicles becomes waving, dancing lines of light, and a hundred other variations and all the subtle gradients between them that my words are too coarse to describe.”

On Nature

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

On Speaking

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”

On Language

“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”

On the Brain and Imagination

“…when the brain is released from the constraints of reality, it can generate any sound, image, or smell in its repertoire, sometimes in complex and “impossible” combinations.”

On the Survival Instinct

“But it must be said from the outset that a disease is never a mere loss or excess—that there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be: and to study or influence these means, no less than the primary insult to the nervous system, is an essential part of our role as physicians.”

On Bliss

“There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony…a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly…”

Inspiring Lessons from Thich Nnat Hanh (and one of his great poems).

Tammy T. Stone

Tammy T. Stone

“When you love someone, the best thing you can offer him or her is your presence…how can you love, if you are not there?” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh is in the hospital after suffering a severe brain hemorrhage. He’s 88 years old.

According to a news release, he is surrounded by disciples and supporters, and is still responsive.

Thich Nhat Hanh, or Thay (teacher in Vietnamese), as he is known, has spent his life in spiritual practice—he says knew he wanted to be a monk since he was seven-years-old in his native country of Vietnam—and in guiding others passionate about following a spiritual path. He has been living and acting as spiritual teacher at Plum Village, a monastery in France for monks and nuns and a practice center for lay people, since its establishment in 1982.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s name is practically synonymous with Zen, the Buddhist path and the road of compassion, so tireless have his efforts been, and so global his reach.

Buddhist monk, poet, author and peace activist (and Nobel Peace Prize nominee) are some of the hats he has worn, with over 100 books in publication, and innumerable talks, lectures and retreats given and held around the world.

Watching him give an interview, even through the filter of a TV or computer screen, gives one the feeling of being in the presence of all-encompassing peace, kindness and compassion.

I remember being on top of a mountain in Dharamsala, India, in the middle of a 10-day Buddhist retreat and course—I sat on a balcony after lunch on a clear, sunny day, reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s “The Novice,” feeling so hopelessly like one myself, which is why I think that title caught my eye at that time.

It’s about a young woman who finds her spiritual calling and wants to be monk during an era in Vietnam when only men could ordain. Her devotion causes her to leave her marriage-bound life and disguise herself as a man so that she can practice and serve as a monk. She does this for years until she is accused of fathering a child, which puts her in a position of having to either pretend she has done this, or out herself as a woman.

The young woman-monk’s unwavering devotion to her path and the pure heart she developed as a result of her practice, which she draws upon during a most challenging time so that her kindness and compassion touches everyone around her, fill me with such inspiration to this day.

I am not in any position to speak of Thich Nhat Hanh’s life or teachings with any degree of authority, but by way of honouring this great man, I wanted to touch on a few impressions—things that have influenced me deeply.

He speaks of beginner’s mind, that beauty that comes from being fully awake to the present moment and all it can bring.

And what does it mean to be truly present?

As Thich Nhat Hanh explains it, to be present is to not be hindered by thoughts of the past or future. It is a reflection of the ability to be in the here and now. This is a fundamental part of the awakened mind, that it rests where it is, not where it has been or will be, which is, fundamentally, nowhere at all.

Why do we want to be present? For our personal development, of course, but also to be able to be fully present for others, and especially others in need. These are the seeds of compassion, and it is only in full presence that we can act as a loving and listening being for those around us.

In full presence, we are in a state of deep listening, and we can cultivate this ability to really listen, to ourselves, to others, to the stillness within, so that we can both become and generate a stillness and peace to serve others, and the world.

Thich Nhat Hanh evocatively spoke about death through the analogy of a cloud. According to my best memory, he said that before it rains, all we see is a cloud, but that once the rain comes, we feel the cloud has disappeared. But if we look closely—with deep listening, with presence—we can see that the cloud never disappeared at all, because it is in the rain, or the snow, or whatever has come after the cloudy period.

It’s a matter of perception, of being really tuned in to the present moment moment and all it offers.

It’s the same with death, he says. Nothing really dies, but continues to be present in other ways. With practice, we can come to see that we can’t go from something to nothing, from being to non-being. And this is what nirvana is about—not reaching somewhere, but removing wrong-perceptions about being, so that we come to a dissolution of these ideas.

And finally, a poem I love by Thich Nhat Hanh:

 

Call Me by My True Names

Do not say that I’ll depart tomorrow
because even today I still arrive.

Look deeply: I arrive in every second
to be a bud on a spring branch,
to be a tiny bird, with wings still fragile,
learning to sing in my new nest,
to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower,
to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry,
in order to fear and to hope.
The rhythm of my heart is the birth and
death of all that are alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river,
and I am the bird which, when spring comes, arrives in time
to eat the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear pond,
and I am also the grass-snake who, approaching in silence,
feeds itself on the frog.

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to
Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea
pirate,
and I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and
loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my
hands,
and I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to, my
people,
dying slowly in a forced labor camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom in all
walks of life.
My pain if like a river of tears, so full it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up,
and so the door of my heart can be left open,
the door of compassion.

 

Please see the elephant journal published version here.