After a lovely day of wandering the island and having a mini feast that we conjured up in the new kitchen ( a little red pepper homous, sun dried tomato tapenade, Moroccan lentil soup, some raw olives, a few dolmades ... you're getting the feasting picture!) we are preparing to join Peter in his alternative new year's celebration. We have lit the fire in the Zendo (first time), have some candles and my singing bowl waiting to ring 108 times (alas, no bell). And then a we will each write something we want to let go of and toss it into the fire and then for a few sips of something bubbly at midnight.
But as I sat down to write in my journal, I found something I wanted to share with you, a little new year's offering. It's a quote I'd copied in March from my daughter's copy of "Taking The Leap' by Pema Chodron, something that had impressed me enough to scrawl into my journal. Perhaps it's a good way to send off the old year and step over the threshold of the new one??
"In the Buddhist teachings on compassion there's a practice called "one at the beginning, and one at the end." When I wake up in the morning, I do this practice. I make an aspiration for the day... I try not to make it too grandiose ... I begin with a clear intention and then I go about the day with this in mind. In the evening I review what happened. This is the part that can be so loaded for Western people. We have an unfortunate tendency to emphasize our failure. But when Dzigar Kongrul teaches about this, he says that for him when he sees that he has connected with his aspiration even once briefly during the whole day he feels a sense of rejoicing. He also says that when he recognizes he lost it completely, he rejoices that he has the capacity to see that. This way of viewing ourselves has been very inspiring for me. He encourages us to ask what it is in us, after all, that sees that we lost it. Isn't it our own wisdom, our own insight, our own natural intelligence? "
"Can we just have the aspiration, then to identify with the wisdom that acknowledges that we hurt someone's feelings or that we smoked when we said we wouldn't? Can we have the aspiration to identify more and more with our ability to recognize what we're doing instead of always identifying with our mistakes? This is the spirit of delighting in what we see rather than despairing in what we see. It's the spirit of letting compassionate self-reflection build confidence rather than becoming a cause for depression." - Pema Chodron, from "Taking the Leap"
Here is my wish for us all for 2011, that we might "feel that sense of rejoicing when we connect even briefly with our aspirations, that we identify with our wisdom and natural intelligence and that we develop the "spirit of delighting in what we see." Bows to you all for your good company on this journey.
Two years ago today, I wrote my first post on blogger. I was dipping my toe into the cyber ink pot (now that's better than ambidextrous, don't you think?). I had posted some art on etsy and the etsy tips suggested a blog was a good thing. Sure why not. I didn't have a clear idea of where I was going but I pulled on my blogger boots and headed off down the trail, posting my first piece of art called "Post Apocalyptic Buddhist Graffiti" Three passions bumped into each other on the trail, my love of writing, exploring the Dharma and art. Here was a place they could hang out together, meet, shake hands, have a coffee, do the hokey pokey, anything within the boundaries of reasonably good taste. It didn't really matter if anyone read what fell in the blogger forest, I was balancing precariously on a little cyber soap box. It felt like a strange mix of offering and opportunity.
It has been an interesting journey, sometimes with many consecutive days of disciplined writing (100 days of Dharma) and as a personal challenge, 30 days of art. At some point I decided I didn't want to post everyday just for the sake of posting. I wanted to write when something in my life or on my mind beckoned me to the page.
I found Dharma friends along the way and blogs that resonated with me, bloggers filled with wisdom and passion who offered sips and deep drinks from their wells. My Dharma has always been about the koan of everyday life, not so much what I find in books or scriptures. It has been my aim to share my life with some transparency without being too much of a Zen Soap Opera. I try to balance the suffering with some joy and find the Charlie Chaplin in the suffering. Irreverence and foolishness are important qualities to me and I try to bake a little into each batch of Dharma biscuits.
The little paper doll Buddhas in the picture above are sharing the coffee table with a book called "Pain Free" (it's written by a physiotherapist, no Dharma intended) but it struck me that often that's what we're up to, trying to escape from our pain, whatever it might be. I have been learning that pain is a little like the monsters in nightmares, you've just got to turn around and look them in the eye. I have been learning that there is so much sweetness and wisdom in the darkness, in the pain. It is full and ripe and just what you need. You just have to learn how to shine the little bike light from your Christmas stocking on it and find the hidden treasures.
That first Dec 30th, 2008 blog post contained these words from the Dalai Lama:
"Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to have woken up. I am alive. I have a precious human life. I am not going to waste it. I am going to use all my energies to develop myself, to expand my heart out to others, to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. I am going to have kind thougths towards others. I am not going to get angry or think badly about others. I am going to benefit others as much as I can."
What more can we ask for really to wake up each day with the aim to "wake up"?
I have been fortunate enough to have lots of delicious time for just lolly gagging around the house, reading, eating, contemplating. Along with a wonderful constitutional homeopathic remedy and some amazing food prepared by Everyoneisvegan this quiet time has been exactly what I needed.
Last night enough space opened up around me that I started thinking about my art again. Three encounters got me thinking about "authentic voice", something which is both important and elusive to me in my art, at least from my vantage point. A lot of the time I feel like I miss the mark due to frustration and impatience. I aim to orient myself toward this north star of authentic voice in the coming new year. I will be looking for a felt sense of something emerging as I create, something that comes through me, but isn't this little me, something connected to a greater presence. I will know it when I meet it. Sound weird and crazy? That's okay, as long as it doesn't sound like one of those mind soaked personal artistic statements.
The first encounter (does this sound like an artist's version of "A Christmas Carol" ?(ew, cheesy, chewy unintended pun left in for your guffaws and tomato throwing pleasure) was with some words from blogger friend Leslie Avon Miller over at Textures, Shapes & Colors. I find her art fresh and original and her explorations filled with passion and light hearted energy . She covers so many artistic miles in her exploration of new (to me) artistic geography. Sometimes I wonder how she has time for it all. Passion will do that for a person, I think. But what really intrigues me is how freely she explores the artistic scales of her own voice.
My second inspiration and call to the authentic self was some writing by Nathan over at Dangerous Harvest; words carved with a sharp scalpel out of blood and bone, boiling with unanesthetized authentic voice. Deep uncauterized trenches of experience laid open for examination; truly an authentic, dangerous harvest, one that etched itself deeply into the crevices of my skin. I was reminded how much I learn when someone is courageous enough to speak their truth.
And as I rambled over the landscape of screen and printed page in my pyjamas I turned to the pages of "Branches of Light", Banyen Books' catalogue and settled on descriptions of some Mary Oliver books of poems, new and old. Again, what jumped out was the deeply authentic voice that carries her across the hills and meadows of her experience, her unique vistas unfurled with such delicious quirkiness. This is truly authentic voice.
So 2011 will find me diving, digging, trekking, climbing, waiting, watching, sniffing for signs of authentic voice. Road maps, secret decoders, notes in bottles, hidden clues all gratefully accepted on my search. Watch for me. I will be wearing a Sherlock Holmes hat and carrying a large magnifying glass. The glass will be filled to the brim with magic elixir and I promise to share a sip if I meet you on the road.
In our culture, part of the season's ritual includes exchanging gifts. A lot of us have mixed and contradictory feelings about this. I have jokingly heard the season referred to as "the winter shopping festival." It is the commercial pressure circus that makes us recoil in disgust. Something gets lost in the foofaraw of black friday and cyber monday and the cry for us to buy, buy, buy, now, later, on boxing day. Sometimes the things we are urged to buy are are so incredibly unnecessary,as to be amusing; things that have caused me personally to nominate "useless gift of the year"; things such as electric jewelery cleaners, hot dog cookers. I'm sure you have a few nominations of your own.
So here's a different kind of exchange we can engage in at anytime, Christmas or not, that might seem more meaningful:
"In order to become used to caring for others more than yourself, You should bring to mind the essential points and integrate in your being The visualization for exchanging self and others, While riding the horse of the breath. from "The Great Medicine That Conquers Clinging To The Notion Of Reality" root text of Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Namgyal
Here is the wonderfully clear commentary on the practice by Shechen Rabjam: ...Breath out while thinking, "May all my good qualities, happiness, merit, and realization go out with my breath and benefit all beings." Think that all beings receive these benefits. Then breathe in while imagining that you inhale all of their suffering and its causes, their negative thoughts, and so on. Imagine that you attract these afflictions and negativities like a magnet, and by dissolving all that you inhale into your heart, others are freed. Then while briefly holding your breath, transform all the suffering and negativity that you inhaled into joy and happiness."
I am reading a lovely little book by Dzigar Kongtrul, called "Light Comes Through". Seemed an appropriate title for Solstice, don't you think? I also thought it was seasonally appropriate as he talks about the practice of rejoicing. Rejoicing he says is the antidote to jealousy. He suggests jealousy is the grossest of emotions, so easy to see, so it is the easiest to work with. "The jealous mind", he says, "wants what others have, be it physical attributes, wealth, intelligence, someone else's spouse, their job, status, spiritual accomplishments, and so on. Because it focuses on what it doesn't have, it feels impoverished and discontented all the time."
Personally I like the idea of an antidote. Take some poison, how about an antidote? We used to talk about this in the Zen tradition I sat with. They did not actively work with the mind in this way. There were a number of us who asked, well if you have unwholesome habits of mind, don't you need to retrain the mind? Dzigar Kongtrul responds to this by saying, "jealousy is habitual, which means that even though we have investigated the harm it can do and the merits of overcoming it -- even if we are completely convinced -- it will still rise up again out of habit.... Rejoicing is simply feeling happy when something fortunate or beneficial happens to someone other than ourselves...We can find so many ways to rejoice and so many things to rejoice in.... we simply share in the joy of others' virtue... When someone becomes a vegetarian (yay) or donates money to a charitable organization we can rejoice... We can also rejoice in the beauty of the world... We need to ask ourselves, "Why does it always have to be my joy? Why is it so hard to delight in the joy of others? The positivity of rejoicing practice releases within us the qualities of intelligence, selflessness, generosity, patience, strength, and good-heartedness... We use this practice to deliberately shape the mind to work for us."
At this time of year in many ways there is a turning toward this generosity of spirit so it seems the perfect time (but isn't anytime?) to engage in the practice of rejoicing. And if we turn our mind in this direction, it becomes apparent how much there is on the horizon or right in front of our pointy little noses (speaking to the pointy nosed little self) to rejoice in. I often notice how my mood is altered when I make a slightly disparaging comment about someone or something. Energetically I can feel how life force is depleted instead of life enhanced. So here is an opportunity to approach things from the other side of the proverbial pasture and rejoice, to support the life force by rejoicing. What will you rejoice in today?
There has definitely been a samsaric quality to the last several weeks. And that's okay, as long as samsara proves to be an educational experience (ah, I have spent many years in Samsara Elementary). What's important is that the suffering you encounter is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering as opposed to the suffering that just leads to more suffering. There has been a quality to some of the days like the dark, foggy fumblings of a bad dream. As in a nightmare, unpleasant things happen and I wander aimlessly in search of solutions. Only on this occasion I am awake, well, sort of.
In this little personal nightmare I am suffering from the effects of stress and environmental toxins brought on by house renovations. There have been the usual host of surprise findings and expenses. We were warned, but like so many things you don't really pay attention until the tarantula lands in your lap. For some reason even though I chose no VOC paint, cork underlay for the wood floors I completely overlooked the issue of off gassing from new cabinetry. And while I chose lovely cement coloured porcelain tile I neglected to consider the chemicals in the grouts and glues used in plumbing sealants. And so what I left unconsidered came to haunt. Isn't that a good Dharma lesson? Doesn't that hold in so many of the arenas of our life? In this case chemical sensitivities stirred with a vengeance. My body offered yet another lesson.
So while my home normally feels like a place refuge, a place to recharge and regroup, I got to experience life with nowhere to take refuge. In a strange way I was homeless, ungrounded, as home became a place that made me feel ill. I had nowhere to hide. The inclination to spin stories of how this would end were enormous. The call of the sirens of depression were alluring. What now? Do I need to rip my kitchen out? Do I need to move? Thrown into all this were some social obligations that left me feeling like a wandering ghost, moving from place to place, going through the motions, feeling unwell, feeling sad that I was unwell, imagining all others as well. Samsara on the personal big screen.
I tried to muster the stations of faith, reminding myself to look up, rather than despair. One moment I could remember, the next I was lost in confusion. I imagined the worst. My physical symptoms seemed stuck. No matter how much wheatgrass juice I drank, how many salads I ate, how much oil of oregano I sucked back, my symptoms were stuck. I followed the little trail of breadcrumbs toward a solution. I even had a nightmare about being trapped in a cul de sac in a hillside neighbourhood! I inched along like a sad little, blind worm. I called a naturopath I have seen. I researched ways of dealing with off gassing. I wandered, disheartened in samsara, looking for an escape hatch. I asked for help. Sometimes I wallowed, sometimes I groped my way forward.
And while I am a rather staunch believer in the worst outcome, this time I was proven wrong. I followed a thread to a biological dentist (my cold symptoms had morphed into dental pain). Surprisingly this grey haired, Harry Potter glassed, wizard helped dislodge my stuck physical symptoms with his bag of holistic tricks. Another day as I sorted lethargically amongst some papers I found a pamphlet for a product from AFM that when painted on cabinetry, minimizes offgassing. Slowly I was making headway and revisiting the land of the living as I wobbled back and forth between hope and despair. Slowly I was cultivating a landscape of possibility.
I learned that the stories I had conjured were habitual delusions and that yes, Virginia sometimes there is a Santa Claus (no dental work required!). I learned how hard it is to rest in the unknown, how it is so uncomfortable that I often prefer a bad bedtime story to no story at all. I learned that some deeply entrenched fears habitually send me heading straight for the panic button. This time around I noticed there is another button on the dashboard. Faintly I read it's tiny letters, "equanimity".
It has been a long, tiring couple of weeks. And there it is, samsara receding in the rearview mirror. But I am reminded that vigilance is an important quality in this life of the Dharma. Sometimes you find your reminders in the strangest places: printed on the bottom of that rearview mirror I find the words: "Objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they appear."
"With the ideal comes the actual, like a box All with its lid. Lo! with the ideal comes The actual, like two arrows in mid-air That meet."
These are lines from a Zen poem called "The Sandokai" which I think translates as the harmonization of sameness and differences. I was emailing with my friend the Buddhist monastic and telling her the story of my life as a home renovator. Her helpful and insightful reply was "With the ideal comes the actual".
The ideal exists in our imagination and the actual is what comes to our doorstep. We have a vision of how things should be (usually involving easy and pleasant) and then when other things happen we protest like toddlers who have had their favourite toy taken away.
"With the ideal comes the actual." This is so true of all things we regard as difficult in life. I think by regarding things as difficult, a subtle rejection of things as they are is implied. By regarding things as difficult, we imply that things should be easier, work out more smoothly and more to our liking. For me I always seem to imagine that things work out more smoothly for others. Somewhere deep inside I have bought some kind of advert image of people. If they look well put together, I imagine there lives flow seamlessly along like some silly hollywood movie. It's only when I get some snippet of their more private life that I wake up. I learn that they suffer from insomnia or their husband died of cancer or.....
So life as a home renovator has had its moments of lightness and darkness. More Sandokai here: "Within all light Is darkness, but explained it cannot be By darkness that one-sided is alone. In darkness there is light, but here again By light one-sided it is not explained. Light goes with darkness as the sequence does Of steps in walking."
The lightness was in creating the vision and sourcing all the elements of the project and in appreciating the work of some of the great trades we had working on the project, the tilers, the carpenter. There was delight in seeing things come together and match as planned. But the darkness crept in when one trade proved unreliable, two proved over priced. The washing machine and the dishwasher got damaged in the move. Unexpected mold was discovered behind a cabinet. And the number one (as David Letterman would say) disappointment was the offgassing from the new cabinets and the smells of adhesives and grout used in the process. I had completely overlooked this aspect of the reno but the aspect had not overlooked me.
Chemical sensitivies to these products reared their ugly head and my body complained about the presence of these fumes. A cold turned to laryngitis, eyes burned and watered. And as the mind sometimes does, a great long story sprung, fully formed. "What if I have to rip my new kitchen out, what if I have to move?" I have been rediscovering the panic queen side of myself! In the end I did what any sane modern person would do. I googled it. I found that mobile homes have huge air quality and offgassing issues and that heavy duty air purifiers are used to suck the chemical gases from the air. So ensued a solution, an industrial strength air purifier.
I almost have my voice back and the project is almost complete. There has been lots of Dharma here, lots to learn and now the the appreciation of silence and solitude.
Where do you find the Dharma when you discover hidden mold on the wall during your kitchen reno and you don't know what to do? How does the Dharma fit into a house bustling with 2 plumbers, 2 tilers, a carpenter and fallers arriving to remove some trees? Well for starters, you do the best you can. You get to see your habitual tendencies in full bloom and then you dance with them as you negotiate the chaos. You feel your way along like a blind person, carefully. You look for openings and light shining through from some other place. You try to find the opportunity in the problem. And as much as you can, you let go of what you "want". And occasionally you remember to breathe. Never helpful to pass out from lack of oxygen.
So that has been the work of the last week. Phone calls and following the thread to make sure that what we were dealing with was not toxic mold and a health hazard. And I got to see a strong panic reaction in myself that relates to anything that feels like a threat to my health. I was learning to be prudent but not alarmist, to weigh and measure the information I collected. I could see the inclination to feed off the panic of someone else who was present. And of course all the time the new kitchen I wanted was barking at my heels. And so by the third day we had figured out what to do, found someone to test the mold, found it wasn't any of the seriously dangerous types and then proceeded to remove it safely. It was an exhausting experience and everyone had several opinions on it. The trick was to weigh it all in a balanced manner, to put strong emotions out of the decision making loop.
I was stressed but with awareness! I did the best I could to work with it. I remembered to practice kindness to those that were part of the process and be thankful that I was in the position to be doing all of this. There was a serious samsaric quality to the whole experience. Life is like that sometimes! And so the house is deliciously quiet tonight as I nurse a sore throat. In the thick of it all lies opportunity, opportunity to get to know ourselves (and thus others) opportunity to take a stab at right speech and right action. Opportunity to not succumb to despair and doubt and panic. Opportunity to dig deep inside and find what Jiyu Kennett called "our iron being". Add a little faith and stir vigorously.
And did I mention that the sweetest 2 tilers broke the washing machine moving it back into place? The tests continue!
Buddhism & Art...if I had to pick two words that give an overview of what I get up to in this world those would be my choices. Buddhism is the ground upon which I rest all else. I like to think it brings me some sanity. It helps me think in some logical way about what I am doing and look at it as deeply as possible. What did I just do? Why ? What's that all about? ...To try and look at my life without sliding over things or fooling myself...To be present for life, not rejecting or preferring one experience over another. Buddhist practice makes my life full and rich, sometimes filled with joy and sometimes with a deep experience of the suffering present in this world.
After all those words does it seem odd to say that it is the simplicity of Zen that appeals to me? This inclination to simplicity pulls me to try and integrate my practice and work, to paint Buddhas, to observe my process as I work.
I am drawn to mixed media, integrating script and words with images and colour.