Meditation on a Dragonfly - Darren Chase
After classes ended, I forced myself to hang out in the city for a week, hoping I’d get bored enough to write. But the bored part never happened and neither did the writing. Over 20 years of teaching high school, I’ve found that if I don’t take some time to do absolutely nothing during the first weeks of summer break, there’s little hope of entering any creative state, let alone a transcendent one. The muse just won’t show up. Nonetheless, while normally I can coax her presence by way of a restorative regimen of militant idleness, this summer she remained elusive.
So I got the hell out of town. First to Provincetown, where a friend had just purchased a trailer in the fanciest of motor parks, whose breezy, pine-covered grounds were only minutes away from a gorgeous hidden beach where I lay in a stupor for several days. From there I fled to Easton Mountain, the gay spiritual retreat center in upstate New York, where, for the past 15 or so summers, I’ve worked as a volunteer, cooking and cleaning in return for food, lodging and access to the unique florescent green foliage of North-eastern New York State. However, this year, instead of working in the kitchen as usual, I splurged on a retreat myself, and thus had more time to spend in the Lodge kibitzing with old friends, reveling in the counsel of the full-time residents there, wise old gays whose unofficial life coaching over the past decade and half has been my guiding light, their sage Gay Institutional Knowledge coming from, among other experiences, having survived both the 50s and the 80s. These were great trips, full of happy post-Covid reunions and catching up after a crazy year—but there was no exultation, nothing transcendent, not even a whiff of any non-normal state of existence, and certainly no animal signs. It was just, well, vacation. Like, sit-on-your-ass, cruise-the-dunes, stare-at-the-water, sand-in-your-cooch realness.
So, I returned to my apartment building’s “flex” workspace in NYC, assuming words would spew forth furiously, but, again, this was not the case. Instead, I found myself on the roof of my apartment building, (where I had spent the greater part of the pandemic), indulging in the afterglow of my neighbors’ post-Covid-bubble camaraderie. My building represents a rather unique cross section of New York life in that it houses an approximately equal proportion of low-income, middle-income and market-rate residents. Those of us who have won subsidized “lottery apartments” extend to each other the conviviality of people who know that they might never not know each other and thus had better find ways to get along. My neighbors and I spent the last lazy days of July on the roof, marveling at the smoggy Martian sunsets together, trying to keep the Delta variant at bay—physically and mentally—even as our lungs struggled ominously in the smoke that found its way to us from the forest fires in California and which on some days obscured our normally breathtaking 360-degree skyline view of Manhattan. We carried on bullshitting with each other as the world burned until, inevitably, I reached my threshold for community, at which point I again absconded upstate.
This time, however, I could hear the pipes of otherworldliness sounding even before I set out to meet my sister at Enterprise Rent-A-Car before our early-morning trip up Saw Mill Road to our cousins’ place in the Catskills. Just as Claire and I reached the outer limits of the last borough, finally, decadently, like coming home, we disintegrated into the intense spirit journeying and Chase-children channeling that has been our primary mode of communication since we were kids putting on plays in the backyard of our childhood home in California. It doesn’t take long for Claire and me to drop into our unique species of sibling-speak, probably as intelligible to others as the whirring and purring of the Schumann Resonance—the frequency of the earth’s interaction with her atmosphere that, when amplified, evinces eerie and aleatoric sounds. Years after those endless summer days laboring away at our little plays in the backyard theater of our beach-town bungalow, Claire has gone on to perform and commission contemporary music that, very much like the Schumann Resonance itself, tantalizes, thrills, sooths and assaults the ears, while my conservative musical tastes remain bounded by, well…the 19th-century composer, Robert Schumann.
My sister and I have had a live-and-let-live entente regarding our differing musical preferences for over thirty years now, but this doesn’t stop me from wishing I understood her repertoire. After Claire won the Avery Fisher Prize for her playing, she made a toast at the celebratory dinner that included the words “My brother might never understand the music I play…” My parents, too, are classical musicians who mostly perform new music, so you’d think I’d have developed the taste for it. I recall having an out-of-body experience at a performance of the composer, Lucas Foss’ American Cantata when I was ten. My father was conducting, and I believe my mother must have been singing, so Claire and I were likely in the audience alone, she, probably analyzing the piece’s counterpoint, and I, wishing I were somewhere else. It felt like I was being pulled up and out of the plush, red theater seats and suspended high above the audience to where my child-brain could finally realize that, try as I might, I would never get modern music.
When Claire and I arrived at our cousins’ country home, I dropped my bag in the master bedroom, walked out into the blazing, late-morning sun and sat down in the backyard to meditate. Just as I crossed my legs, a dragonfly alighted on the dried stalk of a tall rhododendron at the height of my eyes. At first, I was careful to stay still, worried that it would scare and flee. But I understood quickly that my movements would in no way influence its determination to stay just inches away from my face for almost an hour, except for when, every few minutes, it would circle around the bush and me, (45 times, I counted), after each revolution returning to exactly the same spot right in front of my nose. Its perch was so close that I could clearly see the irregular outline of an indentation on its back from which its iridescent wings radiated. As I closely scrutinized this dent, which resembled the impression of a footprint or bite mark, I suddenly had the feeling that this insect was all I was, or that all that I am could be contained in an insect. Yet, at the same time, I felt that the insect was vaster than I could ever be, and of much more importance. Then, when those seemingly opposing feelings wore off, the folly of the whole idea that we were at all different by any degree came sharply into focus and for a little while we remained completely merged.
To believe that we are any different from a tree or an insect is madness, I thought. Then I thought how presumptuous it was of me to anthropomorphize nature to any degree! And this second thought brought to me a pang of regret for all the animals and plants I had contemplated in the past: Had I asked the consent of every tree I’d talked to before unburdening myself? How did I know they were down for hearing my human nonsense?
Any experienced meditator will recognize this jarring double-take as par for the course in meditation: There’s a very individualistic part of our psyches that instinctively resists states of oneness and asserts itself by ripping us out of a beautiful contemplation by any means. Nonetheless, somehow on that day on the grass, Dragonfly’s magic helped me assimilate even this flight of attention into the very state of union my ego had attempted to flee. And that’s when I started thinking about fucking.
We all know gay men have superpowers. I’ve written many times before that freedom from procreative responsibility enables us to serve the human race in innumerable ways. (Like fabulous, eccentric custodians, we sit at the edge of the village, outcast but vitally important in preserving the knowledge and culture that otherwise occupied straights might understandably overlook in their frazzled preoccupation with replicating themselves.) One such superpower comes from fucking. We fuck a lot of other gay men, and, therefore, have the opportunity—over a lifetime of fucking—to enter worlds vastly dissimilar to ours, over and over again. I have traveled through favelas for sex, into Midwestern McMansions, Venice Beach bungalows, Upper East Side townhouses and—again and again, it seems—the Bronx.
For a time, I seemed to be schtupping only closeted, alpha-male hedgefunders in FiDi, whose post-coital braggadocio about cars and planes and clubs I entertained just long enough to ensure a repeat performance. Talk about a window into a world! For a long time, I had lover who lived with his sons in the housing project across the street from me, until he got a promotion that kicked them off Medicaid, out of NYCHA and into rural Pennsylvania. A young, rabidly-liberal friend of mine is presently screwing a 63-year-old professor who also happens to be an antivaxxer. My dear friend is, as we speak, undergoing a Letter-to-the-Ethicist-level moral dilemma as he tries to decide whether to disclose to his trick that he’s been vaccinated, because, according to his sexy professor’s loony, YouTube-based belief system, vaccinated people like my friend can “shed” adverse effects of the shot (such as arcane disorders of the blood) onto the unvaccinated through casual contact. While it may seem bizarre that my friend even considers this man’s perspective enough to worry about tainting him via their extramarital coitus, he assures me, “If he were fucking you, you’d put up with anything.”
Point is, all these sexscapades clue us into the fact that, despite our obvious differences, there is way more that we have in common. What is that sameness? What is its ineffable quality? Is it characterizable? If so, how? My reclusive yoga teacher, Ram, for the six years I was privileged to study with him while he was still with us in the flesh, held a “Q and A Forum” every Friday on Facebook. Ram had students from all over the world and all walks of life, (okay, okay, mostly European and Latin American) who would ask him questions that he would answer, usually on the spot, the blinking ellipsis beneath the last comment in the thread signaling that he was on the other line cooking up an inspired answer as we waited. He always maintained that if everyone could sit on his side of the computer, reading all the myriad human problems we all think are so unique, we’d understand within a very short time that we’re not that different at all and might, he added, (in his inimitably droll style), “become a bit bored of thinking about them.”
The skein of the universe, that commonality that unites all things—like the recently-discovered full-body organ named the “interstitium” that encases all organs and systems—manifests as very different things to different people, but is, constantly and statically, the same throughout these seemingly individual experiences. It’s not sufficient to say that (Dude…pass the spliff) “all is one” or that “the commonality is greater than the discord” because the phenomenon is both grander and simpler than that. It can only be alluded to by example, so, god help me, let me try:
It is only by way of this universal, interweaving, interstitchumy quality that your astrology is your childhood, and your childhood is your astrology. It is by the grace of this grand, amorphous, primordial communality that your tarot reading is both a representation of the contents of your mind and a clue to what is outside it. It is by this mysterious, unifying totality that you can simultaneously change your life anew with every thought and harmonize yourself with what has already been created. It is by the power and ease of this ineffable mystical yoking that we can experience god within and god without, and how we remain both human and divine. It’s how we enjoy music that sounds like the Schumann Resonance and music by Robert Schumann.
Yet, in our very-human striving to find continuity in all things, we are always in danger of disrespecting the diversity of nature’s great, fragmented, wild holiness. When we round off the edges of seeming incongruities, merge similarities or downright fail to honor the mismatched, fragmented, unruly whole through its beautifully disparate parts, we do ourselves and our fellow beings a great disservice. To achieve any sense of peace, any belonging, or at the very least, a true sense of compassion, all differences must be embraced wholeheartedly. Every one. Without exception. This includes everything from Nobel Prizes to childhood cancer. Yeah, it’s a tall order.
I suppose this is why we meditate, if we do. By closing our eyes and watching the mind grasp and aver, expand and contract, we experience this individuation and impersonality repeatedly, until (most of) what we see with our eyes open is somehow both intimate and detached enough for us to bear. I think it’s why I’ve maintained the practice since I happened upon an ashram in my neighborhood when I was twelve. (Things in my family were just so darn Lucas-Foss-bizarre that I craved an expansive perspective on the chaos.)
To achieve a loving intimacy with both dissolution and reconstitution is certainly why I’ve practiced physical yoga for the past twenty years: The more visceral manifestations of breaking down and reintegration are blatantly apparent in the hot mess that is my broken, sprained, torn and toxified body. After multiple surgeries were miraculously rehabilitated through yoga, I will never take for granted my ability to cross one leg over the other and sit in front of a dragonfly for an hour without excruciating pain.
Even after Dragonfly had left me that day, meditation continued easily (as it always does when I’m on vacation), so I was hesitant to leave my spot when Claire called me in for lunch. We had to eat before her percussionist friend, Senem, came over for their jam session, which would involve not only flute, ocarina, and synthesized percussion, but also the amplified sounds of several vibrators buzzing their way through an aquarium full of pebbles. After a lovely lunch, I returned to my spot in the backyard and meditated to the accompaniment of Senem’s amplified sex toys’ electronically augmented oscillations and the thwacking, moaning, and popping of Claire’s base flute.
My meditation teacher, Don, has given me a wonderful technique in Kriya Yoga, the meditation technique described in Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. While I’m not sure that the practice is, as many yogis attest, a super-highway to Enlightenment, I know that it brings me peace, if only because the dynamism of its breathing techniques, sense awareness practices, imagery, deep listening and general reverence for the sensuality of “feeling god in the body” gets me out of my mind every time. It gets me out of my mind and into a place where the “I” I know myself to be is informed by an “I” that is unknowable, yet benevolent and restorative, like an elder brother who will, in a pinch, throw down to protect you from bullies on the school bus, but who hopes that you’ll discover your own power against them without his help.
I know teachers of this style of meditation who try to “teach to the letter” as they were taught in order to keep the technique “traditional.” There’s a whole set of detailed rituals surrounding the practice, but I have come to understand over the years I’ve studied it that everyone puts their own little twist on them, whether they intend to or not. Indeed, the Kriya Yoga technique itself—like the supposedly-traditional Ashtanga Yoga sequence of physical yoga postures that I have practiced for long enough to see this phenomenon in action—has undergone not a few tweaks in just the late twentieth century. Far from diluting any of these practices, these little tributaries of unique expression represent diverse manifestations of the core nature of the teachings, increasing—not diluting—their power, just as, for example, I have been writing these musings on contemporary music and butt sex as a segue to consider the yoga sage, Patanjali…
Sanskrit scholars say the saint who is credited with the foundational book of aphorisms, The Yoga Sutras, was in fact, probably several people going by the same name around that time. Perhaps the revered Yoga Sutra was actually a best-hits compilation of many yoga playlists, compiled by someone using a reverent penname. Some yogis will resist this fact to the end because the idea of one sage is so important to them, but it may be that such collectively-written works have an exponentially transformative power. The earliest archeological evidence of musical notation, The Hurrian Song—written on a stone tablet in Syria around 1400 BC—is believed to have been co-composed by six or seven musicians. Its haunting, sacred musics, indelibly unattributable, can now be dialed up on the internet as easily as performances of the group-composed Yellow River Symphony, written by committee in communist China. (It totally doesn’t suck!) Perhaps all artistic endeavors, no matter how seemingly eccentric and solitary, are, in fact, group efforts of the Great Cacophony, just as this essay was edited by neighbors, family, colleagues and lovers on its way to you.
And yet, in the hours after I sat with Dragonfly that day, while I continued to contemplate her multidimensional interrelatedness and fractured wholeness, I gradually realized that even with all my highfalutin metaphysical understanding of the maddening, wonderful diversity of the whole, while I’ve rarely had trouble extending understanding and acceptance toward others (Trumpers, Covid-deniers etc.) as varied expressions of the divine, I’ve had an unusually hard time accepting myself. Who knows why I am so damn hard on me? As I teacher, my lessons are never good enough. As a classical singer, I scratch and press against the ceiling of my vocal range in vain attempts to stretch my natural baritone in the direction of a dramatic tenor. I feel the need to be more, or different, or better. I suppose, in some way, it comes from being the gay boy in that little California town, where every furtive glance could have meant betrayal and exposure. Perhaps it comes from being hyper-observed by a WASP-aspiring family of exacting musicians, for whom public appearances sometimes meant more than the truth of emotional experience.
Or perhaps I’m just a rather extreme expression of what the yoga scriptures term “anava mala”—roughly translated from the Sanskrit: “not enoughness.” Isn’t it groovy that there’s a Sanskrit word for this? Anava Mala describes the inherent feeling in the heart of humankind, an “original taint,” the disturbing feeling that something is wrong with us, that something should be different. According to yoga philosophy, it is simply this “notenoughness” that obscures our innately enlightened natures. I think, despite all my inclusivity and compassion, that the inherently varied and fractured nature of existence is simply “not enough” for me. I fail to see the whole in its parts. I have a hard-on for metaphysical harmony at the expense of existence’s beautifully banal particulars. I eschew the wild beauty of the Schumann Resonance for the ordered synthesis of Robert Schumann.
After sitting in front of Dragonfly this summer, I understood that far from a desire to be seen correctly, or meaningfully, or thoroughly, the only “original taint” I have is the desire for continuity. I don’t believe in sin, or penance, or really any wrongness at all, but if there were any real crime against god of which I am guilty, it would be my inordinate longing for a contrived wholeness. I am guilty of philosophically forcing an existential consistency that is disrespectful to Nature herself. Somehow the differences, the mad, wild, differences are never enough. I desire “oneness” in ways that are less than spiritually sanctified, as if this desire itself were productive, that it would bring peace in the form of some hero-artist-composed symphonic triumph. Alas, no. The peace is in the pieces, in the chaos and complexity.
I think we are all a bit guilty of looking for continuity. It’s in the reptilian mind, that pattern-seeking survivalist instinct we so often explain away as a thing of the past, as if the Paleo Diet were the only vestige of our millennia of evolution. After my stint in bucolic upstate New York, I boarded a crowded plane to my childhood home in Southern California, to visit my aging baby boomer parents who enjoy a glamorous retirement near the coast, the result of the now-defunct generational boons of remortgaging and union pensions. I write this paragraph on the porch of my parents’ square, cinderblock bungalow, gazing over the eco-friendly landscaping—a jungle of succulents and flowering desert plants whose petals and buds glisten in the cold, morning dew—and, as I do, I pause to honor the Kumeyaay, inhabitants of this land before me, whose culture and language once spread as far south as Ensenada and as far east as the Colorado River. If we inquire into the world of the Kumeyaay before Westward Expansion (their descendants were relegated to reservations far inland during the 19th and 20th centuries), we do not find clannism and monotheism and other rash meaning-makings. No, if we read even a few of their traditional stories, we find in this Indigenous people a great respect for the quixotic and varied expression of nature—the very opposite of continuity. It seems that, contrary to long-prevailing colonial paradigms, far from granting the Western mind an educated perspective on its reptilian instincts, “civilization” has, in fact, hyper-bubbled it into extreme pattern-recognition in the form of a myopic industrial mindset that is closed to complexity—at the expense of the earth and its more respectful inhabitants.*
Continuity. Consistency. Harmony. The original sins. Perhaps the peat moss from which the seven deadly sins spring. I attended a middle school named Diegueño and a high school named San Dieguito. Both names are variants of the nickname given by the conquistadors to the people who historically inhabited my neighborhood. The Spanish referred to the Kumeyaay as “Diegueño,” which sounds diminutive to my ear. How diminutive they must have seemed to the Europeans, when the Spanish ships sailed into San Diego Harbor in 1542. Of course, the grandness of the Natives would seem small to the invaders, because even then, the Spanish were carrying the seeds of the reductive industrial revolution within them. “All the modern things…have always existed/they’ve just been waiting in a mountain.”** What a different world it would be today if, instead of seeing smallness, the visitors would have honored the vastness and complexity of these people, who were able to understand the interrelatedness of hunted and hunter, decay and rebirth, master and servant—not because they possessed an understanding of the unity of nature, but because they could embrace a beautiful complexity that was so maddening to the European mind that it chose not only to ignore, but actively destroy it. ***
Inevitably, the ego attempts to rip us out of any heightened state when it feels merged with something ineffably beyond itself. Any meditator will be familiar with this phenomenon. If you’re not a meditator, I’m sure you’ve been somewhere relaxing, perhaps on vacation, when a feeling of ease finally comes over you and you are momentarily free from your daily grind—only to get a sudden surge of anxiety about some duty left undone in your work-world. There are fight/flight, evolutionary explanations for this, of course, but let’s put aside the Darwinian for the spiritual: This ubiquitous phenomenon of merging/dissolution/reconstitution is why every single time you have a peak experience, feelings of loss, despair and confusion inevitably come next. A complete disintegration of what you conceive as permanent about yourself is virtually guaranteed to follow any experience of oneness, just as the ego’s reassembling of itself is certain to follow any momentary respite from its tyrannical presence. This assembling and dismembering of our sense of self is really a great blessing from our ego, which, like everything else in existence—if the theory holds—is here for our benefit. The forming and decomposing of these states of consciousness are here for us, if we would but honor them. What is hardest for us to accept is this: The dissolution and confusion—not the heightened state of oneness on the top of Kilimanjaro—is closer to the truth of our nature, if we could only remember this while we’re in its throes.
I believe that finding beauty in a state of dissolution is crucial right now, as I’m afraid to tell you that there’s little hope for healing our environment. What they taught me at San Dieguito High School in the 1980s about exponential global warming is coming to pass and anyone who tells you differently should rightly cause you to feel the grating psychological friction of the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It’s too damn late and you’ve got to know it, or at least feel it, which is even more discomfiting if you’re not acknowledging it. The egg has cracked and there’s no putting it back together. There is only an embracing of an ever-increasing complexity of dissolution and a making-our-way-within-it. Any residual desire for continuity has been intrinsically thwarted by nature of simply being born at this particular time and place. I believe those of us living now took a “do-the-least-harm-and-the-most-good” oath when we chose to be born as death doulas to the world in this era of its existence.
Please don’t think I’m suggesting that we throw up our hands in defeat and stop recycling or limiting our carbon footprint. We must continue to care for the earth and engage in rituals of respect, but only because it’s beautiful and honoring to do so, the price of admission for living here, and NOT because doing so will stave off her sweating us out, which is all but inevitable. Neither is it the time to blast into space or suck carbon and methane from the air. No, we have been born now because we can handle honoring the end of this cycle of abuse, just as the last, childless siblings of an old family line take domestic violence, mental illness and alcoholism with them, smilingly, at their hereditary dusk. Of course, if somehow all of us conspired to end our legacies of pillaging the earth without expectation of environmental salvation and simply for the honor and beauty of doing so, we might actually generate the momentum needed to arrest global warming, just as we could stop Coronavirus in its tracks only two weeks from today were we able to unite the world around one singular purpose for that sliver of time. However, the odds of both happening are slight.
But here’s some hope: The great boon of my 20 years teaching 9th graders is that I get to witness how each class is effortlessly closer to developing just this unconditional respect for the earth of which I speak! I can’t quite tell you why these students come to me so wise—that will have to be the subject of another essay—but if I were to conjecture, perhaps it’s the availability of so much pre-loaded information. They have learned to attend to so many things at once that their hyper-processing brains can hold enough complexity to weather the disintegration around them, rendering them more susceptible to the ineffable, chaotic, quixotic quality of wisdom. Or maybe the earth is just making better people every year. It seems it would have to, considering what they’ll face in their lifetimes.
I can’t tell you why these kids come to me so cool, but I’m here for it. For all their seeming distractedness and alienation on the surface, it’s clear that GenZers are authentically connected through their technology, like the mirrored canopy of roots that connects the entire forest underground. Indeed, if I didn’t teach adolescents, I’d probably be really depressed about the state of things. I just hope that my mad, mystic mindset provides some small resource for them in a world that has grown so complex that understanding it is beyond the limits of my middle-aged brain’s neuroplasticity.
The kids’ visceral understanding of the complexity of the disintegration around them is right in sync with the predictions of ancient Vedic scriptures—the source of most yoga philosophy—which suggest that we have just entered an era called Kali Yuga, one of many hundred-thousand-year epochs predicted by ancient seers and Jyotish astrology, each epoch being characterized by different overall qualities such as “compassion,” “truth,” “morality,” etc.. The age of Kali Yuga heralds the total disintegration of social structures, traditions and lineages, and is characterized by “contention” and “discord.” But wait, there’s a silver lining: While challenging to live through, the 432,000 years of Kali Yuga represent a unique opportunity to attain enlightenment, as spiritual evolution is catalyzed during such trying times.
I don’t know how I feel about all those scriptural, sky-is-falling prognostications, but of one thing I’m certain: It’s our charge to live beautifully as the world wanes—well, not the world, just humankind as we know it—and concentrate on nurturing the few, fine seeds that will live on in a form we cannot see or even imagine, a continuity we cannot control, characterize or colonize. No overlord class will emerge from bomb shelters in New Zealand to reboot civilization where we left off. It will be something less direct, less linear, how The Last of Us will live on. The Maya may have destroyed their environment, too, and suffered the consequences, but we know their culture never ended, that indeed it carries on today, represented in such multicultural symbolic complexity as the Virgin de Guadalupe, just as centuries of West African culture are imbued in the spirituals of the Black church, or how, in the late albums of Miles Davis, whose tracks he refused to name or credit so their magic couldn’t be captured by the suffocating dominant culture, unnamable magics persist. We will continue within the diffusion, and the heart of humanity will be carried on in its complexity, as it was for centuries before 1492. As the great Jessye Norman said of the song “Amazing Grace,” ‘The words may have been written by a Scottish-American, but the melody sounds West African.’ There’s the words and there’s the music…
* Kumeyaay.com; Barona Cultural Center and Museum
**“The Modern Things,” Bjork.
***Rescuing the Light, Martín Prechtel; How Forests Think, Eduardo Kohn
Darren Chase teaches English at New Design High, a public school in his Lower East Side neighborhood. Also an opera singer, Darren has released several recordings of classical art songs. His translation of Wilhelm Müller’s "Die Winterreise" is used for English-language performances of Schubert’s song cycle all over the world. (thewinterjourney.blogspot.com) A recent essay, "On (Not) Writing During Quarantine" was published in eMerge magazine. Bruce studies writing with Bruce Benderson in New York City. Darren teaches English at New Design High, a public school in his Lower East Side neighborhood. Also an opera singer, he's released several
recordings of classical art songs. His fiction, essays and poetry have
appeared in *eMerge Magazine, Sisyphus *and *On the Run*.