The Firebird (2004 article) – a response to the aftermath of terrorism

The Eiffel Tower from Pont Neuf, October 2015

The Eiffel Tower from Pont Neuf, October 2015

As daylight spreads over the scenes of yesterday evening’s unspeakably horrific series of terrorist attacks in Paris, people all over the world struggle to find a response in their own minds and hearts. I’ve seen varied reactions on social media in the past several hours. Most of my friends and acquaintances have answered with a combination of deep compassion, bafflement, and helplessness. Some people have used these recent events to blame religion in general for everything that’s broken in this world. Others have expressed fear and anxiety about traveling in Europe. Luckily, the Parisians themselves have responded beautifully, including rather famously opening their doors to anyone caught out in the open. The residents of my favourite city are strong and committed to one another in the way New Yorkers were in 2001.

The question on many people’s minds is, “What can I do to change anything?”

Eleven years ago, while engaged as solo horn in the Flemish Radio Orchestra (now the Brussels Philharmonic,) we went on tour to Spain right after the atrocious attacks in Madrid. I visited Atocha Station, the site of the bombings, and had a powerful spiritual experience there that taught me something new about healing and transformation. My article on this ran in the German Reiki Magazin. You can read it here. I am including here the original English text. Though my article uses many Buddhist symbols and concepts, I think the feeling behind it is universal. Since writing this, I completed my Reiki master training with Don Alexander in 2006. Mastery is, however, a lifelong journey, and in reality we are all beginners, all the time.

“What can I do to change anything?” Here was my response back then. Perhaps it will resonate with you now.

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The Firebird (2004)S1110031

An experience in the aftermath of the Madrid bombings

In March, my orchestra, the Flemish Radio Orchestra, was invited to perform two concerts in Spain, the last of the two at the Auditorio Nacional in Madrid on March 17. We were quite excited at the prospect of a few days in the sun away from the bleak Belgian late winter drizzle. On the program was Stravinsky’s incomparable Firebird Suite, one of my favorite pieces, and I also looked forward to celebrating my birthday in Madrid.

A couple of days before our departure, I turned on the news and learned that Madrid had been the target of terrorist attacks, with heavy losses of life. I, along with the rest of my orchestra, was heartbroken and also extremely anxious about traveling to Spain, not knowing what to expect, not knowing if it would be safe to go, wondering whether it was appropriate to play a concert in Madrid under those circumstances. I thought about it for a long time and realized that the best response to terror and destruction would be an affirmation of life. Music could bring healing into a place of pain, and I thought, who knows, maybe I could do something with Reiki there that would also help. At the time I had no real idea of what that might be.

At the concert, we began with a moment of silence to show our solidarity with those who had lost their lives and those still living who were injured or grieving, and then we launched into our program. The Firebird is mythologically linked to the Phoenix, who explodes in flame and then rises, reborn, from its own ashes. There is a beautiful passage for the solo horn (my part) at the beginning of the finale that represents this rising: slowly, gently, yet full of power. The melody builds and bursts into a glorious coda. After the concert, I felt the clear need to visit one of the sites of the bomb attacks the next day, to try and make sense of what lies beneath the surface of such destruction, to just be there and find a way to offer healing. If it were not possible to offer healing to the souls who had died there, then at least I could bring healing to my own pain and confusion about this attack. I was motivated by a desire to see, understand, to know, to heal. I hoped that I would know what to do when I arrived.

When I walked over to the front of the Atocha station where some of the worst damage had been, I was greeted by a fence separating the street from massive piles of rubble, twisted metal, construction equipment already clearing away some of the debris. The fence was plastered with poems, photographs of victims, banners and messages from around the world, candles lining the sidewalk – much the same as what I saw at the site of the World Trade Center bombings in New York a few years ago.

This was the external view. Beyond this, I could sense panic, grief, confusion, unrest. The sound of the construction equipment faded in my ears into screams. I stood glued to the spot for about half an hour, fascinated, horrified, just breathing, centering, being there. I opened myself to whatever was there in that moment. It was not the presence of evil but of something else.

As I opened my heart and body, the pain I was sensing so palpably around me came to the inside of me. I became a bowl into which the pain, violence, suffering, rage, and also memory was being poured. And I began to burn.

As I turned away from the scene to go to the botanical gardens for some peace, the pain I felt inside my gut echoed all the pain and loss I had ever known on a personal level, but it was as if I grew much larger to contain the feelings I felt at that moment. It was no longer personal but a great force. I began to burn with the flames of wrath, but it was not wrath at those who had perpetrated the attacks. The rage was a white-hot flashing of light, which burned away something of my individual self as I became a vessel for the collective suffering. In that time, I was both myself and not me – I was something beyond the borders of my identity. Deep wrath and deep compassion, both burning in my breast with a terrible intensity.

A few hundred meters away were the Royal Botanical Gardens of Madrid, and it was here that I walked to be in nature. Underneath my sunglasses, a part of me was weeping. I wandered through the nearly deserted gardens, just being with all that was going on inside me, and eventually came to a beautiful, strong tree (the sign said its native home was in the Himalayas.) I placed both my hands on the trunk of this tree and began very quietly to chant the Kotodama of one of the Reiki symbols. For several minutes I remained like this, and the black sticky heaviness of the suffering in the vessel I had become began to transform. At the still center of the pain was a brilliant point of light, even ecstasy, which spread rapidly to all within the vessel. The pain did not vanish, it was more that at the heart of the pain lay something sacred and holy. Gradually I released the tree and was released from the contents of the vessel, left with a profound sense of peace and gratitude.

The sun shone brightly, and all around me were signs of early spring – bright green leaves, tender new shoots and blossoms. The first bees of the season were gathering pollen. I marveled at how death and life could exist so vibrantly side by side, and at this point I saw a bumblebee on the ground crawling near the base of another tree. I stopped to watch it for a few moments. He was obviously having difficulty moving, struggling towards a twig on the ground. As he reached this twig, he moved one of his legs and then stopped moving altogether. With his death came a wave of understanding and gratitude. It was in the keen awareness of death that I experienced most vividly the power and unspeakable beauty of life.

Having trained for my first and second Reiki degrees in the Takata tradition, I believed that Reiki was this force that flowed gently through myself and all things, bringing light and healing, like a clear stream of water. I learned that my conceptions were rather tame in light of the way I was used in Madrid. Breathing the darkness and suffering into myself, containing and burning it all within, there the healing occurred.

Fudo Myoo is at the very heart of these aspects of Reiki practice, as I have learned from Don Alexander. His rage is inextricably entwined with his utmost compassion. We experience Fudo Myoo as Karma or the world, particularly in its painful aspects.  Through truly living, seeing, working courageously through the most painful experiences of life, we are shown the highest love.

Upon returning home, I was browsing through a book on Japanese painting I had kept from my Japanese art history couse at university, when I found a portrait of Fudo Myoo. His face and bearing had their usual ferocious aspect, and he was surrounded with flames. Yet there was something special about the form of these flames, and as I read the description of the painting, I discovered that they were actually painted in the form of garudas, or the Japanese version of the firebird. After all that I experienced during our orchestra tour with the piece of that same name, I shouldn’t have been surprised.

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Notes:

Fudo Myoo is known in Japan and in other eastern cultures as one of the “5 wrathful kings,” the guardians of the wisdom of Buddha.  Fudo is the central figure of these five – he is also known as the Immovable One.  He sits on a rock with a sword in his right hand and a rope in the other.  He is not the teacher of the Dharma or the Way, is not a meditative Buddha, but is rather the teacher of Karma, of life, of the action of living.  The sword he uses to cut through our illusions about life, and the rope he uses to catch demons, or our nightmares and terrors that come from living.  When we understand his wisdom and message, we can become one with his essence ourselves and be purified through the fire in which he himself sits, one with the cleansing flames. Fudo Myoo is also a shamanistic figure and represents the point of union between Buddhism and shamanism.  He is the patron deity of the martial arts.

Kotodamas are like mantras, but they consist of mostly the vowel sounds of a particular mantra and are especially powerful when used in meditation (or prayer, as I sometimes think of it.)

The garuda is a sort of Phoenix, the holy bird that symbolizes spiritual purification. It heals through consuming poisons and evils and transforming them inside its own body.  It is often associated with Fudo Myoo and is also seen as an aspect of that essence.

Out of the Closet

 

Every September in Luxembourg, local residents find a large, orange transparent sack shoved through the mailbox (or sometimes, dumped unceremoniously on the ground somewhere in the vicinity of the front door.)  This is the time to go through closets, locate items we no longer wear and wish to donate to charity, and pack them into the bag for pickup, usually scheduled for the first day of autumn.  Whether this is coincidence or deliberate seasonal gesture, the timing is fortuitous.

In our neighborhood we also have a giant orange container for the same purpose, next to the bins for recycled glass and paper, perched outside our local Portuguese greengrocer’s shop.  On the afternoon the orange bag arrived (this year, still clinging stubbornly by one corner to the mailbox), I got excited.  My natural impulse to give things away and to clear space kicked in with a sort of frenzy, and soon I was happily laying waste to my closet and chest of drawers.  Once I started, I didn’t want to wait the two weeks until pickup of the sacks, so I ended up taking 4 bags down to the corner container.  Clothes I hadn’t worn in a really long time.  Clothes given to me that I had kept just to be nice.  Clothes I wasn’t sure why I bought in the first place.  Clothes hanging under other clothes, forgotten.  Clothes I imagined someone else would take pleasure wearing.  Clothes that didn’t quite fit my body, or my personality, but that had continued taking up space, “just in case.”   A few holdouts from the 90’s that had survived several such purges and changes of residence gave me pause, but sometimes it’s simply time to let go and move on.  (Apparently, I was fond of leopard prints in the 90’s…)

Cleaning out a closet isn’t such a big deal, really.  Making space in my head, in my heart, my spirit – that’s another thing.  What in my life have I been carrying around that I haven’t needed for years but haven’t released?  What burdens have I taken on from my family, friends, colleagues, society in general, and never examined?  What do I hold onto from the past that no longer serves me, but stays in my psyche, “just in case?” 

Releasing old baggage and destructive behavior patterns is as easy – or torturous – as we allow it to be.  My Reiki teacher, Don Alexander, often spoke of resistance, of the many ways we hold onto the familiar just because we know it and are afraid of who we are without it.  Even, and sometimes especially, the pain.  Why do we identify with our limits, physical or intellectual?  Why do we let the old tapes in our heads tell us what we cannot accomplish, why we cannot be free?  Don teaches his students a wonderful meditation about this.  After centering and finding a calm place inside, you slowly strip off, one by one, all your physical layers.  Who are you without your hair and skin?  Who are you without your muscle?  Without your eyes and ears?  Without your soft organs, your blood?  You continue this until you are down to your very bones.  The idea is to pare everything down to its most essential, its basic components. 

Who am I without my horn playing?  Who am I without my need to make people feel comfortable and happy?  Without my anxieties and desires?  Without my intellect?  Without my taste in literature, my ability to cook, my health, my marriage, family, senses, thoughts, emotions, even without my name? 

Obviously, we don’t throw everything away.  (I still have clothes in my closet!) But if we take a moment now and then to look deeply at the things we carry, to discover what is essential and what is not, and to release just a little of what burdens us, we can breathe so much more freely.  I’m still working on it, that balance between resistance and release, but the releasing part gets easier with practice.

Oh, and by the way, if you ever see me decked out in leopard prints again, send me home to do another closet purge, please.

 

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