Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Fear, Round Three

Oh, oh, as I head toward the end of my 100 days of Dharma I am running out of art to post.  I'm not a particularly fast painter, and so I am getting down to a few new pieces that need photographing.  This is a really old piece , maybe 6 years old.  It uses hand done collage images manipulated on photoshop.  The work was done for an art licensing company but never made it through the final steps to production.

I am thinking about fear again.  Maybe you've heard enough about fear already?  This time I'm thinking about it in terms of my mother.  Today I went to visit her when the doctor came by.  In an earlier post I made reference to the fact that she wanted to decrease her meds in an effort to speed up the process of dying.  So today I went to have a 3 way chat with her and the doctor.

Now my mother and I have already had several fine conversations on the subject of dying and we had the opportunity to chat again before the doctor arrived.  As much difficulty as I have had with my mother over the years, it seems this is a subject that we have come to talk about without doing any dysfunctional dances over.  (No funky chickens here).  I could tell her that of course the decision is hers but that I don't think it is good to make the decision out of fear (there it is again, that fear thing) or some imagined idea of future events.  She is afraid of her declining mental state.  She refers to it as becoming a vegetable or going crazy.  So we had a really good conversation with the doctor about the choices and options and how he sees it playing itself out.  He agreed that the decision shouldn't be made from a negative point of view.  He was quite accepting of it as an option to minimize suffering.  He said most people just let things take their normal course rather that taking any proactive steps.  He talked about how death is just a part of life.  And he pointed out the fact that if she can engage in this conversation on how to make her exit, she is far from being a vegetable.  He clarified what meds he sees as being key players in the process (diuretics that reduce fluid build up) and that her exit would probably be the result of the kidney's being unable to conduct away the fluid in an efficient enough manner.  He felt because of the fragility of her heart he didn't see her hanging around long enough to become a vegetable.

He asked her about her spiritual beliefs and my mother could tell him about her experience after my father died that she felt he was around in their apt. for about 4 months after, and that convinced her there was something after this life, though she isn't clear on what that might be.  It was a helpful conversation with a really caring and thoughtful doctor.  In the end he said to her well, you've bought your ticket and your waiting in the station, you've made your intentions known.  There is no hurry for you to make your choice.  You can make it at any time and it will probably become clearer to you as time goes on.  He will visit her once a week and the conversation will continue, I think.  Before I left she said I will probably make the choice but I don't know when.  I felt good that she could think and talk about this and contemplate the end of her life quite consciously.  She says she is not afraid to die.

There was so much good Dharma here.  The ultimate acceptance of what is, which my mother and I talked about after the doctor left.  How we create so much disharmony and suffering by fighting against what is.  How this is an opportunity for her to look at that "worry about loosing her mind and saying foolish things".  I suggested she could look at why she felt that way and what that was all about (being vain she suggested later).  I told her in Buddhism the question is who is worried about this?  The part of the Dharma in all of this that is important to me, is that she make her decision based on "right understanding" rather that some faulty logic or out of fear.  I would like to see her, as much as possible, make her exit in a wholesome way, if that choice of words makes sense to you.  I would like to see her working to resolve some karmic issues in this lifetime so she doesn't have to repeat them next time around.  I have great hopes for her end of life process.

In a way I think the whole conversation today took a lot of pressure off her.  The doctor could say to her that he sees the process taking place gradually over the next few to six months even without reducing the meds.  I'm thinking this may release her to actually enjoy and savour her final days here, instead of exuding the bitterness I have perceived over my lifetime.  That is my hope for her.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Dharma Tidbits

Some people love shadow shots.  I love reflection shots.  Here's what happens when your photographer in residence snaps a photo of a collage that has glass in the frame.  Caught, like a deer (or should that be dear) in the headlights.

The Dharma tidbit on my mind today is about coming from a place of fear and lack.  It's something I mentioned in yesterdays blog and it's come up a couple of times for me recently.  That particular choice of words which I like, came courtesy of Bunny the Cat's owner.  At one point we  offered to keep Bunny when it looked like her owner's plans might not make it possible for her to reclaim Bunny.  Our reasons were that we knew Bunny would not like to move to yet another home.  Bunny's owner pointed out that we were feeling fearful for Bunny and this was perhaps not the best place to come from when decided Bunny's future.  We had  a wonderful Dharma cat-chat and after several weeks I realized she was absolutely right and that indeed it was good, for a variety of reasons for Bunny to leave us at the end of April as originally agreed upon.  I would trust Bunny to the universe.  Today Bunny's owner called to say that she will indeed be in a position to take her back.   So while I didn't know this would be the end result, I had decided to have faith and trust and not come from a place of fear. 

As I chatted with, let's call her Mrs. Bunny, we talked about what we were each up to.  She looking for a job and a place to live and as she put it moving between hope and fear.  This is from a person who spent the last 8 months in retreat at a Buddhist monastery.  And if we're honest and willing to look we can see  this is often what we do?    Our emotions and thoughts rise and fall, like little internal tides.  And if we can just watch them like a home movie and not get attached to them, not believe them, not take them for something that is real, then it's all okay.  Fear and hope.  They just pass through (is it Dogen who likens our thoughts to passing clouds?)  In Buddhism our mind is just another sense organ and our thoughts are the object.  Our nose smells, our mind thinks.  No problem, right?

I described our real estate experience to Mrs. Bunny and she recalled looking to buy property and remembered the experience as one based on fear and lack.  That was interesting to hear because I presumed we were getting the fear and lack treatment because of the current economic situation.  But  it seems that even in booming economic times, fear is used to motivate buyers too.  "You better make that choice quickly, it might be gone if you wait, the price might go up."  So I was doubly reminded how important it is to keep your centre, your ground, as fear and lack are often used as motivators in the sales industry, especially with large purchases where it can be difficult to get people to commit.   Powerful emotions are often manipulated to get us to take action.  

So what to do?  First we need to be aware of what is happening.  Then we need to know that the folks doing this are not  bad, in fact most often simply unconscious.  And then we need to be able to reorient ourselves, in a way that works for us so that we are not making our choices out of fear and lack.  We want to come from a place of faith and trust, with a strong intent to do what is helpful or good to do in the situation.  Sometimes we need to sit with it a while, so the dust of confusion can settle and the way become clear.  So let me get the feather duster out and when it's time to take off the goggles and the dust mask I'll let you know.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Climbing To Higher Ground

Today I am thinking about how easy it is to get swept away into someone else's story, to buy into their world view.  Why is that?  And how do you keep that from happening? How do you retain your equanimity when people around you are doing the funky chicken?  How do you get the funky out of the chicken??

These are my questions today.  Do I have answers?  Not really, but I'll do a little archeological dig of the spiritual kind with you.  Let's talk specifics, because as I've learned over the years, talking in generalities is mostly not that helpful.  It's like the rules of phonetics when you're trying to explain them to someone.  The first word you come across is the exception.  So it is with the Dharma, you need to examine each situation for it's chards of truth.  

On Friday we talked to a realtor as we are thinking about making a move.  It wasn't so much a doom and gloom vision that they painted, but a picture that made us feel  squeezed.  The interview should have been called a gazillion reasons why your property is worth less than you think.  Realtors, car salesmen, always create that feeling in me.  I somehow move from sitting at a card table with a lovely hand to feeling like, hey what's that guy over there doing with all the cards, where'd mine go??

So over the weekend I teetered back and forth between thinking that our plans were not possible or maybe we should put them on hold to  feeling that things could work out just fine and that I didn't need to buy into someone else's story.  Now this is not to say that I should buy a pair of rose coloured glasses or stick my pointy little head in the sand.  It seems to me that it is about energy.  There is an energy of fear and lack and there is an energy of openness and possibility.  And for me it is easy to be swept away in someone else's tidal wave of fear (or create my own).  I need to remember to get out the surf board or climb to higher ground.  The work is in how to do this in a real world pragmatic kind of way.  It's easy to say all the words, "don't buy into the story, it's not real, etc, etc".  But how actually do you do that?

It came to me today that one thing I need to do is centre or ground myself before I go into these type of situations or meetings, to gather my chi or energy (in the hara).  Am I sounding too weird and new agey for you??  Even without the pink sunglasses?  And then to be mindful and breathe, which I so often quickly forget.  Human relations are kind of like a martial art in a strange way (and I don't mean I'm going to pull a Jacki Chan on anyone, no kicking and punching allowed!).  But I am thinking in energetic terms for some reason.  You need to be able to hold your own energy in a non aggressive way, like a qi gong master.  Now this is a real skill I think, one I am not very adept at or conscious of.  You see some people with such grace and decorum and equanimity.  They are centred and less likely to be thrown off balance by unwholesome energy.  In the martial arts, it's all about how you stand and how you use the opponents energy to support your own.  Over at the Humble Yogini's blog she told a wonderful story where she and her husband did just that, maintained their centre, held their energy, rather than being blown around by the winds of crazy talk. 

So this is my next project.  To work with (no, maybe play with) preparing myself before encounters that I might perceive as difficult and then attempt to remember my mindfulness as I move through the experience.  Any thoughts on the subject out there?  No rubber chickens, please!

Hey Harriet's Shadow Shot

Okay I better come clean here.  I didn't actually take this shadow shot.  Credit goes to my partner who actually has the patience to take the photos of all my art.  I found this picture in the downloads along with art pictures and thought it was so sweet I had to post it.  This is Bunny the cat sleeping under an umbrella of an orchid.  And not only is the picture not mine, egads the cat is not mine either!  Bunny is a borrowed cat (ie., she is a long term visitor in our house while her owner is on an extended meditation retreat at a Buddhist monastery.  Bunny does look quite at home here don't you think, although perhaps a bit pensive.  See other great shots by linking through to Hey Harriet's Blog

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Yum, Let's Eat

I'm thinking about the little mealtime prayer that is said in the Soto Zen order that I have experience with.  It is a lovely little prayer.  I don't always remember to say it before I eat but it is a really nice reminder of many things.  It reminds us to think about where our food comes from, how many lives touch it before it gets to us, that it is a precious offering from many sources.  It makes me think of our connectedness.  It can be like one of those little stories when you see the loaf of bread on your table, how you can see all the way back to the wheat growing in the field and all it took to get to our plate.

The verse reminds us to think of our training.  Have we been training with integrity or have we been hanging out with our big hairy friends, sloth and torpor?  

It asks us to think about greed when we sit down to eat.  It is so easy to slip into the wonderful tastes and eat more than we need.  Then it reminds us that we are eating so that we can train and point ourselves toward compassion and wisdom.   

There are many variations of the mealtime verse from various traditions and schools of Buddhism & specifically Zen.  Some are much longer.  At some point someone printed this verse out and laminated it.  It is really nice to just keep in the kitchen, especially when you are just learning it..  There is also a closing verse which I will print here and then I must hurry off to turn the lights off from 8:30-9:30 for Earth Hour.  So without further adieu here is the mealtime verse:

I must think deeply of the ways and means by which this food has come
I must consider my merit when accepting it
I must protect myself from error by excluding greed from my mind
I will eat least I become lean and die
I accept this food that I may become enlightened 
Homage to the Buddha
Homage to the Dharma
Homage to the Sangha

This closing verse can be used at the end of a meal but also for transitions from one activity to another to help remind us of our training.

The universe is as a boundless sky
As lotus blossoms above unclean water
Pure and beyond the world is the mind of the trainee
Oh Holy Buddha, I take refuge in Thee.
Homage to the Buddha
Homage to the Dharma
Homage to the Sangha

Friday, March 27, 2009

Writing Our Own Soap Opera

 I am going to write about my mother again.  Oh, oh, I hope this is isn't starting to sound like a soap opera.  I guess if you don't like the program, you can always change the channel.  And if it were a soap opera, what would we call it?  We could have some fun here.  When I was in high school and my father sold real estate, we would both come home and eat lunch together and watch 2 fifteen minute soap operas.  One was called Guiding Light the other was called As the World Turns.  My father called the second one "As the Worm Turns"

If he was away on business for a couple of weeks he would ask about the characters in the soap opera when he returned.  It used to annoy my mother.  Over dinner we would talk about these characters like they were friends.  How's Sam he would ask (that's the only name I can still remember).  And amusingly nothing much would change as weeks and months went by, you could always pick up where you left off.  Time did seem to move as slowly as a worm.  And in a strange way life is like that.  We're like those characters.  We might get a new shirt or a new haircut but somehow years later we're often stuck in the same habitual patterns we've been acting out forever.  What's that old cliche "Life imitates art", not that I would presume to assume that soap operas are art, but that's another story.

Back to my mother, my father bless his very funny soul, has been gone a good seven years.  And in a way the memory of how he died is partly what is motivating my mother to try to influence her own death.  We had a really nice (if you can call it that) chat tonight.  Nice because we had heart to heart communication, no one got mad, no one grumbled at the other person, we accepted each other and listened and heard the other.  There was lots of Dharma in the chat.  

First she started by telling me how she had talked to my brother and that  she tried to tell him what she was planning to do but that he wouldn't listen to her and told her she was fine.  It was interesting to hear the other side of the story.  I heard my brother's the other night.  It reminded me of the old tale where someone asks 2 people what an elephant is like.  One person who is standing up front, describes the trunk, long and narrow and bending and the person bringing up the rear describes the huge, roundness of it all.  Well that kind of sums up the two descriptions of the same conversation.  It was so clear to me, that these two people who care about each other, did not  hear what the other person said nor were they able to put themselves in the other's shoes.  How much of our lives do we live like this?  In this unsatisfying way, never really hearing or communicating clearly with each other, never touching each other very deeply.  I am guilty of this on a daily basis in a zillion small ways, through hurry, through business, through pushing away what I think I don't want.

But eek I haven't even started the story of my evening chat with my mother which is where I found a very big chunk of Dharma.  We talked about the withdrawal of her meds but not in the way she usually accuses me of,  thinking I know everything.  I  could say, "I'm sure you've thought long and hard about this.  This isn't a decision a person makes without a lot of thought."  And she admitted she had thought a lot about it.  We talked about me coming over when the doctor visits this week, so we can discuss the med withdrawal.  I told her he probably wouldn't want to withdraw anything that might make her uncomfortable (heart meds?) but that I didn't know their exact effect.  And then we talked about what her blood thinner does.  And I shared with her my thoughts that (and this is a major belief in Buddhism)  we can never know the exact circumstances of our death.  I asked her about how she saw things unfolding and said she'd probably considered that things might not go that way, that sometimes when we think x is going to cause y, z happens.  (Pretty good for someone who barely passed math, eh?)  

She asked if I understood her position and if I agreed with it.  I said if she found every day a burden and that living was just too much trouble then I could understand it.  Turns out (and I guess in a way I knew this), that her big fear is that her mind is declining (at 94 she is just beginning to be forgetful) and that she will turn into some sort of babbling idiot.  This thought scares her enough that she wants to take matters into her own hands.  I reminded her that she can't know she will turn into a babbling idiot (I speak from the experience of already being one, as evidenced by this long rambling!).  We talked about how this could happen even with the withdrawal  of the meds.  And so there it was.  Our fear of the unknown, our trying to exert control over our environment, make things come out the way we would like, the grasping after what seems desirable and the pushing away of what terrifies us.  So I think it will be an interesting chat with the doctor, where we can entertain some of these questions.  

For me I think what has been uncomfortable about my mother's choice, is the seeming anger and depression and negativity that surrounds it.  And the biggest fact, that somehow she thinks she can make things turn out easier, the way she wants, that she can avoid what she fears most, losing her mind is really not possible to ensure.  I think her choice is motivated by wrong understanding.  And what about karma, my little mind wonders, how does all that fit together.  And ultimately I wish for my mother to have some kind of closure, some peace, to have dealt with some of this life's karma, perhaps.  But I know that is not up to me.  I can only offer what I can and bow to the rest. 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Suffering & Forgiveness

Last night I had a call from my brother who had just spoken with my mother on the phone.  He wanted a little help in sorting out the cryptic messages my mother was doling out to him.  We are such strangely interesting creatures, us humans.  At 7 o'clock when I spoke to her, my mother seemed fine, even cheerful.  When my brother talked to her 2 hours later he experienced her as extremely low and depressed and understood that the doctor was discontinuing meds because her cancer had progressed to a point where this seemed the best choice.  (Neither of these things are exactly true.)

My brother and I had a heartfelt  chat and agreed that really our intentions were to be helpful to my mother and that consisted of being supportive and truthful (not necessarily nice, if that makes sense) and hopefully engage in some sincere communication with her.   He felt the same sense of sadness about her choice that I had experienced the night before  and that was somehow strangely comforting to me and made me feel connected to him.  In the end he could understand that at 94, she might be tired of her life and feel like she'd had enough and if she wanted to actively pursue leaving the world that we should honour that choice.

All this got me thinking today about suffering and forgiveness.  Today I took a break from "my mother" and went out to the country.  It was a slightly mild Spring day that even offered a little lick of sunshine.  We drove through some lovely pastoral farmland and  stopped at a Fair trade farm that makes their own chocolate.  We sampled one that had salt and maple syrup and alderwood smoke, one with lime and coconut, another with enough chipotle pepper  to send me into a coughing fit.  I finally chose one to buy, with the most heavenly taste of vanilla, cacao nibs and rose essence.  In case you're wondering what this has to do with the Dharma, let's call it skillful means.  Sometimes you need a break from your suffering.  If it is possible, sometimes you need a little "shelter from the storm" as Bob Dylan would say,  to rebuild your energy so you can stay balanced and deal with the stressors in your life.  It is not running away or avoiding I don't think, when it is undertaken with some mindfulness.  And so we drove and wandered and walked, shared a little rice and kale with miso sauce and some dosas and dahl in a lovely little community market cafe.

Someone mentioned "forgiveness" in their comments the other night .  And that got me thinking about it.  What do you think the opposite of forgiveness is?  My first answer would probably be to "hold a grudge" but I suspect anger is
perhaps the hotter, more intense opposite.  But how do we forgive someone  if the forgiveness doesn't naturally arise?  Are there things we can do to cultivate this forgiveness?  Notes from James Baraz's "Awakening Joy" course I took last year say, "True forgiveness is based on understanding why people act unskillfully. ... According to the Dalai Lama, an essential component of compassion is realizing that the other person's words and actions are not about you, but about their internal reality, which has intersected with yours." 

 Baraz also mentions a couple of other points regarding forgiveness which seem helpful to keep in mind.  "Forgiveness is what frees up energy and allows our hearts to open to life and greater well-being."   He also reminds us, "If you find yourself contracted, disconnected and suffering because you're caught up in anger, forgiveness may be your main practice to awaken joy."   And I think it is also helpful to remember, "If you're not yet ready to forgive someone, then forgive yourself for being just where you are, particularly if you judge yourself for feeling the way you do.  We can't hurry up the process.  Sometimes hurt take a while to heal."

So forgive me if I've gone on too long.  You will feel energized by forgiving me!  (See what a service I have done.)  And if you haven't gathered anything else here, you might be happy to have discovered that chocolate is definitely an aspect of  of skillful means!  Bon appetit.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

With A Little Help From My Friends

This little 6x6 is hot off the easel and just in time as I'm running out of art to post.  I am a slow creator and labour over things until I like them.  There is a matching half (another little 6x6) which I will post tomorrow that shows the other side of the Buddha!  Imagine that cutting the Buddha in half, eek!  The words on the painting (that look like they need a little touch up!) are attributed to the Buddha, via the Dhamapada, according to my google search!  It is a much longer poem (maybe I have to do a whole series of little paintings called the Dhamapada? to hold the entire piece because it is quite lovely)

I have to offer many bows to those who shared their personal wisdom with me after yesterday's writing about my mother.  I realize in many ways this is such an opportunity for both my mother and I to be differently in the world.  Today as impermanence would have it my mother actually sounded cheerful when I spoke with her on the phone.  Perhaps there is some relief in her deciding what she wants to do.

 She wanted to talk quite reasonably about her will.  And because my practice has shown me the value of contemplation (and I had engaged in some last night and this morning)  I could, without malice or judgement talk to her about some things she wanted to put in the will that were clearly aimed at people or that might create disharmony after her death.  I could ask her if that was what she wanted to leave behind (and given the opportunity to consider, she said no) and agreed that the bits of "stuff" were not important enough to leave behind hard feelings.

I could tell her that she needed to tell my brother and sister about her choice to discontinue meds.  She wasn't sure that she wanted to do that.  But I felt clear, given her normal modus operandi that this was important for her to do.  Not only would it be about her being clear with people, it would open up a window for heart to heart communication if my brother or sister wanted to go there.  I reminded her that they were her children and should be informed by her, just as I was.  She agreed to my surprise.  In the past my mother has used me (and I have allowed this) as a buffer between her and the world.  I am clear that I no longer wish to assume this role.  It creates hard feelings in the family, denies my mother the opportunity to connect with others, and places undue responsibility on me (which creates resentment in me).  I feel clear that my refusal to assume this long standing role helps both me and my mother.  If I make mistakes (life is always an ongoing experiment) I can adjust my course from my new vista in the landscape.  But a considered response from a non-reactive place is a good starting point.

So this is the Dharma of everyday life.  There it is all laid out before me: impermanence, contemplation, a little right understanding and right action, the fact that life is an experiment and that we are always adjusting our course.  And the fact that the joy and the suffering are always right there, intertwined in their yin & yang kind of way.  And the miracle is  that all this makes life rich and full, chunky and savoury, like some lovely hearty stew, instead of that thin watery broth that the TV and magazine adverts try to sell us. 

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Every day is Strange

Today was a strange day.  Maybe all days are strange?  In the morning I heard that Tricycle magazine will use my mixed media "Forest Buddha" in their summer issue, yay!  In the evening when I talked to my mother on the phone she told me that the doctor had been round to visit her and she has decided to slowly go off the medications she takes, in an effort "to speed up the process" as she puts it.  She is 94 and has multiple health issues and as she sometimes likes to say, she is half dead and the other half refuses to go.  

If you've read this blog before you will know that my relationship with my mother is not an easy one.  I find her prickly and difficult.  So here is the challenge.  Of course I want to be compassionate and helpful to my mother through her process of leaving this world, at least some part of me does.  But to be very truthful a part of me doesn't want to do the work, feel the pain, or just be with her.  In many ways it would be easier to feel angry toward her and push her away, to grumble and blame.  And there in lies my work, to do the best I can, to try to be helpful, yet to acknowledge my own humanness.  So it will be an interesting ride.  Part of me eyes her suspiciously, what will she get up to now?  Part of me feels exhausted before I even start.  Couldn't I buy a ticket to somewhere else? (also today a friend sent me an email that said "Discover the Buddha by Indian Rail")  Doesn't that sound more interesting?  But here I am and I will muddle along this leg of the journey as best I can, sometimes with a flat tire, sometimes on my bike, with the wind in my hair.  

My mother knows how to push my buttons, that's for sure.  I used to think it was intentional but I have come to see recently (as I peel off the layers of projection) that in truth she doesn't know how to be anything but prickly.  She is like a little porcupine trapped inside that shell of quills, firing them off in all directions.  She doesn't even know that she can take this little costume off any time she likes, in fact she believes the zipper is stuck and she can't possibly get out.

I have picked an old book from the shelf this evening, Sogyal Rinpoche's "The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying".  It will be good to read this, although at this point I can feel the hard knot of resistance in me, this feeling of my mother making me do this, of wanting something from me.  We have a long history of this.  In the book, Rinpoche says "the dying need our unconditional love, but in some situations this may be far from easy.  We may have a long history of suffering with this person ...."  And then he suggest two ways of working with this "first, look at the dying person in front of you and think of that person as just like you, with the same needs, the same fundamental desire to be happy and avoid suffering, the same loneliness, the same fear of the unknown .... The second way, and I have found this even more powerful, is to put yourself directly and unflinchingly in the dying person's place. ... What would you most need? like?"  Not bad advice for being with the living either, don't you think?  So if my mother is the porcupine, I am the furtive little ground squirrel, peeking my head out of it's hole, hoping not to get my furry little self ripped or torn.  Wish me luck and courage.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Waking Up to What We Do

Okay I hear you.  What the heck is that over there where there's supposed to be a piece of art, you're asking.  My partner said it was Zen dots!  It is in fact some scrabble tiles that I'm making into pendants using some Asian stamps and yes that may be Zen dots they're sitting on.  We have them in for testing but their origin is still undetermined!  Now that we've cleared that up I can move on to the day's Dharma.

Yesterday Christine shared a quote  in the blog comments that said,  (I paraphrase) "everything that comes into our circle is there to teach us something" and that expresses so well how there is Dharma everywhere if we are willing to look.

Today started with a call from a friend.  She is an old friend, not given to a great deal of self reflection, but kind and thoughtful and doing the best she can, as we all are.  I hadn't seen her since early December and she visited Friday.  She looked terrible and had been sick for 4 weeks with a cold or flu and various complaints that just weren't going away.  We walked and talked.  She has a stressful job working with handicapped kids.  At one point she looked at me and said that her husband had said to her, "we create our own stress".  I agreed and I could tell from the silence that somehow the proverbial penny was finally dropping for her.  

This morning said friend called and when I heard her voice I knew she was still off work.  "I know why I'm sick", she said.  I thought oh, oh, I hope she didn't bring me anything really contagious (my we're self centred little creatures!)   "It's stress", she said.  A light had gone on over the weekend.  All the things piling up, worrying about her daughters' problems, the relationship between one daughter and her husband, her very stressful job; things had reached a level where whether she wanted to acknowledge it on a conscious level or not, the body was rebelling.  My friend the monk says, "if we don't get it when it whispers in our ear, sooner or later we'll get hit by the two by four."  And of course she is not making any reference to household renovations.  So my friend is being visited by some medium sized lumber.  She is finally having to look at "how we create our own suffering" and what to do with that.

She called me because we have always seen each other through tough times.  Several years ago I was touched by her tender caring when I was really sick.  I like to think she called me because she knows I will support her.  I offered a "hearty good for you" for figuring out what the problem was and reassured her that it was all good, that everyone at some point has to wake up and look at their pain.  And that is the beginning of healing.  

And then to figure out what to do.  We talked about her options.  She had a call in to a chiro that deals with emotional issues and she talked about how she didn't want to go back to work.  I reminded her of the little AA prayer that talks about looking at what we can change.  She was already thinking about parts of her job that she could let go.  And so as she talked and I offered the bits of Dharma that seemed like they might be helpful (including these things don't get dealt with overnight).  I reminded her of some meditation CD's I'd leant her last year and told her how helpful the book of small inspirational quote she'd brought me when I'd been in the hospital had been.  It felt good to be able to support her and it felt good to see that she was dealing with the "real" issues in her life, not just putting on the antibiotic bandaid.

And so there it was the Dharma ....  How most of us have to be dragged there kicking and screaming, to a place where we are willing to have a good hard look at what we do.  And it is all good ... good that we got there (the compassionate side of suffering).  It is our opportunity to do the real work of our life.  And we all get there when we get there, no sooner or later, and all we need to bring is our willingness.  And  the suffering that she was experiencing is the suffering that  leads to the end of suffering.   So I say a good for you to my friend because it is not easy.  But it is definitely rewarding and enriches our lives.  In a recent blog post I quoted PT Sudo who said the  Japanese character for crisis could be translated as both, danger and  opportunity, the makings of an interesting soup don't you think?  I'll have a bowl of that, hold the matzo balls.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Capturing Accidents & Making Mistakes

This painting is from a series called "Zen Squared" which is based on the good ol' Zen circle or enso.  So if a Zen circle represents emptiness what does a Zen square represent?  And this is squared so that means, well whatever it means to those of you who are more mathematically inclined than I.  Me, I'm more interested in words, than numbers.  This paintings seemed the perfect vehicle for some slogans, some inspirational words.  Quotes and  little inspirational quips rank as one of my favourite things, perhaps up there with chocolate and cheesecake.

This one "Capture Accidents, Make Mistakes" is based on Bruce Mau's (a Canadian Designer with an international reputation) Manifesto For Creativity.  Over the years I think there have been a lot of quotes regarding the value of mistakes: things like, "if you don't make mistakes you're not really trying."  

I love the sentiment of capturing accidents.  Somehow in my mind I see a little mistake wandering by and a guy with a big butterfly net catching it, gotcha!  There is something very wonderful and very Zen about capturing an accident, the two words seeming at odds, yet mingled together they create something new and surprising and wonderful, the unexpected.  To "capture" seems so full of intention, while that "accident" just happened kind of by surprise.  It takes awareness to see the value in an accident and then intention to capture.  And finding an accident worth capturing, now there's a Zen moment!  Get ready to pounce, kitty!  Awareness, intention and action all need to come together for us to transform the haphazard into something helpful, or something of beauty or whatever the end result may be.

Make mistakes.  Well how can we help it?  But it seems like we find mistakes shameful or distasteful.  We spend a lot of time avoiding them or pushing them away (it's own kind of attachment).  But in fact it is full of the Dharma, to make mistakes.  Often when we decide to take some action, it is really an experiment in our little life laboratory.  We don't know if whatever plan of action we choose is going to work or splat us in the eye with something that smells bad or stings.  It takes courage to make mistakes when you think about it, to willingly put yourself in the position where you know you have a 50/50 chance of being wrong (or worse odds).  

And, it's humbling to actually publicly admit we've made a mistake.  Mistakes are great teachers.  They teach us how to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and start all over again (as the slightly sappy musical line goes).  And what can be more valuable than learning how to correct our course, move from where we are, and work with what we've got.  What's that other old quote, "life is not about getting what you like, but liking what you get." Okay if I'm throwing out quotes like darts in a carnival game, here's one I found the other day that I loved at first site,  "Act the way you'd like to be, and soon you'll be the way you act."  - Leonard Cohen

I love quotes that inspire me, make me think or act in some way that pulls me past my normal, habitual way of being, that as Cohen says "make me act they way I'd like to be".  And for that I love to read a little Dharma everyday, mostly from the collection of favourite books I have around the house or some new one I have discovered.  Maybe that's tomorrows blog, my favourite Buddhist books.  I have a few!  

So I think we are all experiencing the old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."  Are there favourite quotes or quips out there.  C'mon, I know you've got favourites, play nice and share!

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Dharma of Pain

Over at Peter's monkey mind blog, we were having an interesting discussion about pain, specifically the pain of loss.  My feeling was that when we reach out to console someone (especially in times of great grief) it is our natural empathic urge to help, the way we might quickly pick up a small child who has fallen, that makes us do this.  It is, I think, an automatic human response.  

But as with many things it can be more complicated than that.  In addition to this response it is probably fair to say that we are mostly uncomfortable with pain, our own and that of others.  Our attempt to make the pain go away through words or hugs or lollipops may well be an expression of this discomfort.

One of the interesting things to me, when I started studying Buddhism, is that one expression of attachment is grasping after things that we want, but a less obvious expression of it, is the pushing away of what we don't want.  This was surprising to me at first.  I can see how hard I work sometimes to resist what I deem unpleasant (and sometimes it is more subtle).  And pain falls into this category I think, labelled unpleasant, let's get rid of that pesky pain.

Do we ever welcome pain?  Not so much.  We even have a name for people who seek out pain and we don't regard this as a flattering label.  In Buddhism pain is considered  one of the 8 worldly conditions.  There is a little rhyme that I've heard somewhere to help remember this list of worldly conditions.  It goes, "pleasure & pain, loss and gain, praise & blame, fame & shame, they're all the same."  Isn't that interesting, all the same?  Would you think that at first glance?  Or even on the 20th look?  And perhaps that's just part of our human reflex of pulling away from the flame (or the shame)?  A little fire warms us, a bigger flame burns us.  A little cheesecake tastes yummy, a lot makes us feel sick.

And so while we don't want to go around creating our own pain, it is an inevitable human experience.  And so our work is to be with it when it comes to us, as best we know how.  As a worldly condition it just is.  We don't have to add value or drama or engage in a struggle with it.  Easier said than done.  And we do the best we can in being with our own pain and that of others.  In our imperfect human way, we may not know what to say or do, but we muddle through somehow.  If we live a life of practice we can look at it, perhaps approach it like some small wary animal, trying to see what it is.  Is it dangerous, will it bite us, should we run from it?  And gradually as we can relax and just be with what is.  We may find it is different than we imagined, that it has something to offer and teach us, that it softens us and makes us more compassionate and tender human beings, that it connects us each to the other like one of those join the dot pictures we did as kids, showing us the bigger picture.

 And if we can be quiet enough and mindful enough we may hear that still, small voice within and be guided to do what is right in that particular moment.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Just Sitting

It would be very Zen to carefully replace each tube of paint and return each scrap of paper to where it belongs, lovingly and carefully as I worked.  But as you can see from this studio shot, that isn't my method.  I cook like this too.  Before you know it things are everywhere in a creative flurry.  And then when they reach some tipping point of chaos and disorder and  I can't bear it any longer or think straight, I pause to tidy.  Then I feel like a spritely little breeze has blown new energy into the place and  the process starts all over again.  As you can see Bunny, the cat, is exercising her supervisory prowess and disapproves immensely.

You might think I was going to write about the process of art but really I'm just out of art photos so this studio shot is standing in for a painting.  On the art front I am posting some paintings to the Boundless Gallery site this weekend so they should be available for viewing by Monday or so.  It was very gratifying yesterday when a buyer received the 3 paintings she had purchased and expressed her sheer delight to me.  That is the fun of selling directly, getting the feed back that reminds you of your initial intention.

I have been thinking about meditation today.  The Zen meditation that I am familiar with and have practiced for the last 4 years consists of sitting facing the wall with eyes slightly downcast, but open.  You are not thinking and not trying not to think.  You are just sitting.  Your aim is to be open and present.  You hear sounds, you observe your thoughts.  This is sometimes referred to as Shikantaza.  

Lately, after taking a set of qi gong classes I have been trying the method of meditation suggested in that class.  It is one that applies a concentrative focus on the hara or lower dan tien on the out breath.  It is used to build concentration, focus and ultimately chi.  I have actually found it really helpful to work with building focus and concentration, something that didn't really happen for me in the Soto Zen form.  But I have also noticed how the mind gets in there when there is a task to do, as in focusing on something specific (like the hara and chi building).  The mind wants to make this it's little project and once you do this you are on a slippery slope of watching and measuring and wanting things to go a certain way.  And then suddenly it's all gone awry.

This morning after we'd finished sitting my partner read me a little excerpt that expressed this perfectly, from a book he's been reading called "Meditation week by week" by David Fontana.  The quote was, "Whenever you intend that meditation should do something or reveal something, the conscious mind assumes it can do the work for you.  Meditation works best, if as soon as you sit on your cushion, all thoughts of goals and attainments are relinquished.  You sit in meditation simply because that is what you are doing."  He reminds us that we need self discipline to help us remain focused.  He talks about the pitfall of  "feeling elated" about anything that happens and I can always remember when I first started meditating and at some point in the meditation I'd feel "ah, it's finally getting going here, or this is going well", and poof it would be gone.  There is definitely a "no peeking" rule in meditation.  Once your mind gets in and starts stirring, everything falls out the hole in the bottom of the pot.

So in sitting meditation it is just the same as our practice out in the world.  It doesn't serve us to get attached to results, to have expectations, to think there is something to gain from our meditation.  We are just sitting there like little Buddhas.  As my friend the monk would say, "Buddha bows to buddha".

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Fear, Faith And Flying

Yesterday I wrote about fear in relationship mostly to health and the body.  Someone left a comment that our allopathic medical system is "fear" based and that seems a pretty accurate description of it in many ways.  We are afraid of pain and suffering and illness, and ultimately death. And strangely we are often most afraid of our fear.  So much of this bubbles below the surface like toxic ground water that it's no wonder we easily participate in a fear based health care system.

This morning I was thinking about fear from a slightly different angle.  As I sat, a conversation I had with Bunny the cat's owner, popped into my head.  Bunny lives here for now and the discussion revolved around would Bunny stay or go elsewhere at the end of the agreed on 9 month cat sit.  Bunny's owner said she didn't want to make a decision about Bunny's future from a place of lack or fear.  I had said Bunny could stay here permanently as I don't think Bunny would be happy to make another move.  Bunny's owner felt this was not the place to be coming from.  She went away to ponder this and Bunny's fate has not been decided at this point.  But the more I think about it, the more I agree with this wise young woman who has spent the last 8 months in a Buddhist monastery.

This morning I could somehow really appreciate this "not coming from fear" position.  It reminded me that the opposite of fear is really faith.  Faith that  things will bring us what we need, not necessarily what we want, but what we need.  And what could make more sense in the grand scheme of things than getting what we need.  It is a position that asks, "what do we know, really?" and reminds us that there is always a bigger picture than our little selves can see.  And those of us who have spent a lot of our lives waiting for the proverbial "other shoe to drop" need to be reminded every now and then "that the universe is not out to get us."  (and it doesn't wear size 12 army boots)

This morning I was thinking about some life changes we want to make and how the uncertain economic times keep coming up in our conversations with people.  And so this morning I was thinking not so much about Bunny's future and fear based choices but how we will approach a potential relocation.  I thought I want to try that "not fear thing", kinda like, oh yeah I'll try that new ice cream flavour, over there.  I want to try and do this without caving in to the predominant thinking that's fouling the air these days, a fear based, doom and gloom flavour (I'll have a double scoop of grim reaper, with plague sprinkles, please).  

Approaching things with faith and confidence doesn't mean you throw caution overboard, or send your rational mind on vacation.  As my friend, the monk would say, you do things "whole heartedly".  She herself has demonstrated this through a number of moves over the last few years.  Even though some choices defied cautious logic, she said, this seems good to do (after listening for that inner direction), let's have faith and act and see what happens.  In one instance we found her the most fabulous house, with a lake view, and lovely neighbours where the landlord's agent agreed to lower the rent.  What happened was truly beyond belief.

So, to have faith takes courage; to keep remembering through all the small acts of the day takes awareness and vigilance.  It is so easy to slop into those comfy old fear slippers, they may have a few holes but they are always waiting for us by the bed.  To just be open and present and take action, that is our job.  And no small one.  It is our practice.  There is a quote to the effect that there is an energy, a momentum created by our taking the first step.  Without that first step, we just sit around and overthink things, tell ourselves all the reasons why our plans won't work.  We offer ourselves the opposite of hope and call it rational and sensible thinking.  Man we can be bad company for ourselves, sometimes!

I will end with this quote that I love by Guillaume Apollinaire:  "Come to the edge," he said.    They said, "we are afraid."  "Come to the edge," he said.  They came.  He pushed them and they flew.  So get out the wax and feathers, we've got some flyin' to do.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Working With Words And Fear

I heard a story today from a friend that made me think of two things: fear and the power of words.  My friend was having some difficulty breathing, shortness of breath and so visited her doctor.  He sent her over to the Emergency Dept of her local hospital, the quickest way to get an xray.  In the course of examining her and reading the Xray the attending physician learned she had breast cancer 4 years ago.  He immediately jumped to the conclusion that the fluid they found on her lungs was the result of cancer and told her she was probably now sorry that she had declined conventional treatment and would have to see an oncologist and have chemo or radiation this time.  All this prior to any test results.  Needless to say, my friend was left reeling and spent a very uncomfortable weekend waiting for test results.  By Tuesday she was relieved to hear that the tests showed no cancer.

I felt angry for my friend, that this doctor, a person in a position of power, would have such little knowledge or regard for the power of his own words, that he would share his hasty conclusion and his treatment biases with her in the blink of a beady eye.  It  would seem he had no understanding that  his words would instill deep fear in her.  I assume no one in the helping professions would knowingly set out to arouse fear in another.  I can't know this for sure.  The only thing I can know for sure is that words carry power. They can hurt or they can heal.   They can inspire and create hope.  They are probably as powerful or more so than the drugs and treatments this doctor believes in.

Everyday we use a lot of words, mostly without examining them very carefully.  My friend's story made me think of "right speech", one of the Buddhist eightfold path.  It reminded me of how important it is to consider what we say to others, to hold our words up to the light and examine them carefully as if they were small jewels or perhaps tiny granules of poison.  I was reminded of how we can hurt people with our words without even noticing it.  I was reminded of the energy and power of words and how we should handle these harbingers of joy and harm accordingly.

Then I thought about fear, how it can suddenly well up inside us, for any number of reasons.  The situation my friend faced would incite fear in most people.  I have spent time with the C word and it is a very scary place.  So what do we do with that fear.  Well my experience is that  we hold on for the ride.  We experience it in our bodies, if we can sit there, feel our hearts race and our body tremble.  As much as we can we try to be present for that physical sense, to experience it directly.  Sometimes we can and sometimes our minds race away.  Sometimes we need to get up, have a walk, turn on some music, watch a funny movie; skillful means.  I can remember when my daughter was young, our Naturopath commented about fever, "fever is good  but you don't want it to overwhelm the body."  My experience with fear is the same,  that sometimes if the fear is intense we may need some relief from it.

And if you watch fear, it comes and goes, just like everything else, it is impermanent.  We might think it is always there, but there is an ebb and flow to it.  And mostly if we can just stay with it for the wild ride, we find that it either changes or it isn't exactly how we thought it would be.  And if we are present for it, we can take the next tiny little step needed and keep moving and readjusting from the points along the path.  And weirdly fear can be an opportunity, an opportunity to connect with others, to experience their caring and generosity of spirit, an opportunity to soften up a little, to recognize how vulnerable and frightened we all are inside, an opportunity to get to know ourselves and how we operate just a little bit better.

There is a sign I love in the parking lots of some of the regional parks around here.  The signs read, "Thieves operate in this area."  (like they have some kind of special permit or license).  We are kind of like the park.  You never know when fear will operate in your area.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Getting Me to Move Over

Last night I was re-reading sections of Joko Beck's "Nothing Special" when something she said hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks.  In fact I woke up this morning still spitting shards of  brick.

Talking about practice Beck says, " ... the centre of our life is shifting from a preoccupation with ourselves to life itself.  Life includes us of course;  we haven't been eliminated, ...  But we're no longer the centre."

As I read this it made me think about my mother and the little tantrums (internal, thank goodness!) of anger  I have about her.  I felt this little shadow of shame creep over me.  There it was an instant flashbulb fuelled snapshot of ME square in the middle of the view finder.  It is me putting myself first with my wanting things to be my way that fuels this anger that rises up in me inconveniently, uncomfortably.   It felt like " a penny dropping" as my friend the monk likes to call it.  It wasn't just the of reading Beck's chapter called "The Talk No One Wants To Hear"  (which is about our comfort seeking and self centred behaviour).

I think it was combined with the fact that on Sunday I listened to part of the recording I made recently of my mother talking about her life as a child.  My brother was visiting and as we sat over the crumbs of our breakfast knishes and bagels, I played him a bit of the recording.  I could hear it as sadder and more heart wrenching, than I had when I first recorded it, perhaps it was filtering through his ears, reflecting in his eyes.   

This morning I woke up feeling just a little more mindful of the little things I say and do and the "me" focus of them.  I woke up feeling like I wanted to make the effort to be a little more patient and generous of spirit.  I could see the tiny twist of words I might normally fire out that denote impatience or judgement.  I could pause and resist the inclination to speak out of habit and hurry.  It was interesting to watch.  The spirit of generosity extended even to myself.  Instead of  reciting the list of a gazillion things I needed to do, I could say to me, "enjoy today, enjoy wrapping these paintings up to mail, enjoy adding a couple of treats to the package.  No need to run off in a thousand directions at once.  If one thing gets done well today, that's all that matters.

In the afternoon I spoke with a woman who is training to be a monk.  When I asked her how that was going for her, the response was interesting.  "Well, I'm learning to listen more."  And as she clarified what that meant for her, I heard her saying that what it really meant was being less "me" centred, learning to be open and hear what other people need and follow through on that.  Not from a self sacrificing place, not from a place of aren't I wonderful and giving, but from that place that Beck talks about of "shifting our preoccupation from ourselves to life itself."  A wonderful and freeing position, don't you think?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Zen Cleaning

This little collage reminds me of Spring.  I remember as a kid that a new skipping rope was one of the delights of Spring.  After a long Winnipeg winter you could take to the sidewalk with that cheery new length of blue or yellow plastic and skip ecstatically.

It must be Spring because (no I didn't get a new skipping rope!) today I had the urge to clean, not that let's get the dishes out of they way cleaning, but a sense that I wanted to go through the house and really clean.  Call me crazy but given the right mood I love to clean.  There is something satisfying in a cleaning job well done.  I love nothing better than to get rid of some collected winter clutter or to make something sparkle.

Where is the Dharma in this you ask?  I sense it is there, I know it is there.  Let's look.  For starters  it's about following what it feels good to do, today, right now in this moment.  Not what should I do or what can I do.  I  am talking about looking inside and sensing  what is it good to do, what wants to be done, sensing that urge to clean if it is there, learning to follow that inner sense.  This is a big part of the Dharma for me, being able to tune in to that inner sense of knowing, to actually hear that still small voice within.  Because where does the real Zen truth come from but deep inside.  So part of our training is on a daily basis to become familiar with getting in touch with what lies inside of us, that is living in harmony with the truth.  And it takes a lot of practice.  There are often a lot of competing voices vying for attention.  What a good proving ground , the small things of life, so that when bigger issues arise we are more acquainted with that inner voice. 

And cleaning away clutter is a very Zen idea to me, stripping things down to what is needed, doing away with the extraneous.  This is an important aspect of training.  As it is in the inner world, so it is in the outer world.  There is a symbolic aspect to this clearing, a ritual that reminds me of what we are aiming for inside, getting down to what really matters, the essence.  Strip away confusion, throw away that accumulation of papers.  Lessen our attachment by giving away a few things, some old clothes, perhaps something we cherish if we really want to loosen the grip of clinging.

And then there is the dusting and washing and cleaning.  Look in a Zen monastery, how things are clean and uncluttered , how cleaning and working is part of the daily training, done with mindful attention and loving care.  As well as an opportunity to train it is symbolic of what we aim to do on the inside.  The refining of life.  Each time we shine the light of our attention on a nook and cranny of the kitchen drawer or cupboard or the inside of the fridge we  finding something new that needs our attention.  So it is with our confusion, delusion or ideas that don't serve us well.  On all these fronts we can work with right effort to remove what clouds and obscures, whether it is a dusty piece of furniture exposed by the Spring sunshine or a thought or habitual pattern that we finally notice.

We can take pleasure and pride in our cleaning, getting satisfaction from the effort of our work and enjoying the fruits of our labour.  And we can move back and forth between the real and the symbolic, the inner and the outer, knowing they are all connected.  "When we pull on a single thread (in nature) we find it is connected to the rest of the world."  -John Muir.  And so it is with Sunday cleaning.  

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Do You Need A Teacher?

One of the questions that comes up in spiritual practice of any type is what about a teacher?  Do we need one?  Can we progress along the path without one?  And what is the role of the teacher?   I can only speak from the personal experience I have had with and without a teacher.  Maybe some will find my comments helpful.  That is the spirit in which this piece is intended.  It's a topic that comes up with friends on the path.   Some have teachers, some don't, some have had teachers, some are looking for teachers.

Joko Beck in her book, "Nothing Special", says, "A lot of my students try to turn me into a substitute parent.  That is not my role.  Students in difficulty often come running to me; as much as possible, I set them to dealing with the problem themselves.  Once students have some idea of how they might deal with the problem, the best thing to do is to let them struggle.  Then there is some possibility of transformation."

To clarify my situation (a wonderful professor of mine, Fred Marcuse, said when you hear some information, always consider the source)  I have a relationship with a Zen teacher, although I am no longer a formal part of the Sangha.  And when Beck says "once students have some idea of how they might deal with the problem," this I believe is the invaluable role of the teacher.  A teacher can help you see how to use the Dharma in your own life.  This is particularly helpful when we are confused or angry or experiencing greed, (ah the 3 poisons) because they cloud our vision and make it difficult to see.  Before I met my teacher (with whom my relationship is quite loose at this point in my training) I used to refer to myself as a 'bookstore Buddhist'.  I read and read and read, but found it difficult to put into practice what I read.

A good teacher can help us see where our work is and offer us a starting point but always we must do the work.  Sometimes we know where we need to do the work but are baffled about where to start.  We may know we are filled with anger at someone and keep falling in the burning pit, but what to do?  And when we are fooling ourselves, or making excuses or looking for an easy way out, or for some sympathy, a good teacher will let us in on the little secret that everyone can see but us.  Sometimes that might make us angry or we might disagree initially, but if we are willing to be honest with ourselves and look hard enough we will see the truth.

Always it is up to us to decide what is the truth.  It is abdicating responsibility to follow blindly (and I know some might regard this as shaky ground.)  Some people may say that the teacher is wiser than us and we need to take their advice unquestioningly.  Certainly in monastic settings, this is the monk/teacher relationship.  I think you must know the teacher very well and have a high level of trust to do this.  From my observation, every teacher is human and susceptible to human foibles, so to follow unquestioningly seems unwise to me.  Maybe I lack trust or faith, but at this point in my life that is how I see it.  I believe I need to be as honest with myself as possible (and sometimes that is not a pretty picture!) and then I need to digest any advice offered.

One of the wonderful advantages of having a teacher is that you get to observe how someone with experience and wisdom "lives" the Dharma.  If you are fortunate enough to have teacher that is willing to be transparent, they will share vignettes of their daily training with students.  Then we are really fortunate if we can be led by example, if we can hear about where they fall in a hole and watch them train with their own greed, hate and delusion.  Are they humble, are they kind and compassionate?  Can they show you what right effort looks like?  Can they apologize when they make a mistake?  Do they have a sense of humour and joy?

A teacher is an invaluable resource but I have watched students grow dependent on the opinions and advice of the teacher which seems counter intuitive to the way of practice.   They put the teacher on a pedestal and need to check out every detail with them.  Practice is supposed to make us grow up and help us learn to find our own answers, the ones that only we can know, the ones we are here to learn.  

I do believe that anyone on the Spiritual path at some point benefits from the wisdom of the right teacher.  That teacher may look very different for different students.  I think you are drawn to the teacher that suits you (that being said, you need to be aware that there are charlatans and less wise teachers out there).  Perhaps if your practice is very loose or your personal style is very loose, you might benefit from someone who offers a tighter, more strict practice.  If you are very sensitive, then perhaps someone with a harsh personal style would not be a good fit, or maybe it might provide just the opportunity you need.  Only you can know.

In the movie "Words of My Perfect Teacher", Dsongzar Khyentse Norbu offers his students some interesting teachings.  Students comment how they may spend periods of time where they are very close to him and then he disappears for a year, not contacting them at all.  Push a few buttons?  You bet. In the movie he tells them to meet him at the airport, where they spend hours waiting for him, only to find he had gone on to Germany on his own.  Then they are left wondering did they misunderstand or did he set them up for a little teaching.  It is a pithy, first hand, push your buttons, teaching style.  Some may love this, others may not find it to their taste.

And in the end if we are really observant and willing and patient, isn't life our greatest teacher?  Isn't the teaching everywhere if we look?  If we are quiet and attentive and know how to listen, isn't what we need to know being constantly brought to us, to lie at our feet, awaiting our discovery or the print of our rather heavy boot?

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Energy of Community

Today was our last qi gong class until September.  I will miss this intensive 4 hours of practice each week.  It reminds me of how important community is.  It was listening to more advanced students talk about their experience of chi that encouraged me to sit longer and actually experience the difference, to see how much stronger the experience of chi is when you sit for an hour instead of 1/2 hour or 45 minutes.

But what I was really reminded of today was how strong the chi is when you sit with the group, how we all build and share and surf on each others presence and energy.  It is so beneficial and encouraging to feel this.  And if you've never sat with a group, you might feel surprised by this experience.  I don't think there is anyone who doesn't notice the power of group sittings.

I remember this too from when I sat with the Zen Sangha that I belonged to for 4 years, how there was an energy that deepened our meditation when we sat and walked together.  And the energy at the Buddhist temple where we would go on retreat was even stronger.

It seems in our everyday world, especially here in the west we don't think much about this  invisible energy, how it is part of our life, present in each person and available for cultivation of health, awareness and well being.  We can't see it or hear it, or taste it, or smell it in any usual way, and so it seems to the modern western mind that it doesn't exist.  It is kind of sad really, that the rational, scientific mind has pre-empted so much of our experience.  The invisible part of the universe is unavailable to most westerners.  We know that blood circulates in the body because when we cut ourselves we see it, but chi, where is that?  It's like we lost our way at some point in the evolutionary process.  We took the big super highway of the material world (headed over to Walmart)  and left the narrower roads  of the unseen spirit, chi or energy,  to grow weeds and become unused footpaths.

I guess I am unravelling two threads here, one that meanders down the path of what we have lost by neglecting the invisible world of spirit and energy, a whole topic of it's own really.  And the other thread is attached to community.  And yet when the community thread came up today it was attached to the thread of energy and spirit.  I have thought a lot about both these things over the years.  When I look at what's missing in a lot of people's lives I sense it is both of these things, a sense of belonging and sharing and a sense of the deeper meaning of life. 

 It is that sense of connection that human beings long for at some level, that collective embrace that makes us relax and feel at home here in the world.  And I think our restlessness and anxiety is somehow fueled by the lack of the spiritual, by  not approaching questions like what are we here for, what is our mission, how do we decide what is important to do and how to behave toward our fellow beings and the earth we live on.  If you combine a sense of community with spirit, or unseen energy, it seems to me you end up with something very powerful.  In Buddhism, the community of spiritual practitioners is considered one of the three treasures or jewels, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.  And true Sangha provides this sense of community of those on the path.  

So that's what I'm thinking about today and since landing here  in the blogoshpere I have sensed I have joined another Sangha, one that stretches out toward you, in invisible space, boundless and without end.  Bows to you all, cyber sangha!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Just Be

Today I am thinking about the gentle act of just being, not needing or wanting anything.  Is it possible for us humans to inhabit this state for very long?  It was Friday (Friday the 13th egads!) and we decided to have a fun Friday.  We settled on visiting some galleries and just having an aimless wander.  We identified a few small galleries that we'd not been in before took to the streets.

It felt good to not be task driven, no laundry to be done, no groceries needed, no studio cleaning or painting (not that any of these activities are bad or boring but I find they can create this momentum of "I need to get this done").  Removing these tasks felt like opening up a space, kind of like clearing your desk, quieting the ever present momentum of doing.   Tarthang Tulku in his book "Gesture of Balance", says "When we let everything be just as it is and listen to the silence within our minds  - this becomes our meditation.  This silence is not just absence of sound or freedom from distraction, it is full openness, the presence of the mind."  Maybe that's what we were aiming for without knowing it, some "gesture of balance" against the stage of usual activity.

So a Friday without an agenda  felt like letting go, letting go of expectations, a space clearing, a departure from the usual.  Is it the Puritan work ethic that drives that list making and task seeking behaviour that can seem so tiring and habitual?  It is seldom that I get up in the morning without thinking of all the things I want to and need to do.  Does that make me feel important, accomplished, satisfied?  And why is the list always longer than the day?

It was a freeing experience to just get up and take the day as we found it, to wander and chat with gallery owners, nothing to buy, not necessarily looking for art selling venues, just being open to whatever came up.  A door is open to a narrow stairway in Fan Tan Alley, let's go up.  Chat with the young art seller who has just launched a website.  Talk about the enormous round skylight in this one time gambling den.  A little shop with "Etsy" style goods on the corner; let's wander in and have a look.  Chat with the owner of "The Mercurio Gallery", a beautiful little space full of treasures owned by  a silversmith of 30 years, who just decided to open a gallery when the spaces adjacent to her studio became vacant a year ago.  In "Dales Gallery", we get a tour of the photography exhibit and learn how the photographer has cleaned the garbage up off the streets in the photos (digitally) and made the streets glisten just a little more in the dark, how he has created the perfection that lives in his head to share with us.  We sense he is creating a mood of peace and serenity by aiming for the perfect landscape, the Vespa framed by the yellow and blue walls like some abstract painting.  We have another lovely chat and wander on.

It is a lovely free afternoon, punctuated by a cup of good strong coffee before we start the walk home.  What time is it, it doesn't matter.  It is an experience of "no expectations", of sheer being, of connecting with others with no agenda.  The body and mind relax.  A vacation from the usual way of being.  I don't feel great, one of those days when for reasons that always baffle me I feel vaguely unwell, but that's okay too.  I keep remembering the Suzuki Roshi phrase I found the other day "enjoy your difficulties,"  and so I don't feel bummed out by body's failure to live up to my expectations.

Perhaps tomorrow, though I have things to do and places to go and people to see, I can carry with me that sense of just being, with no expectations, no agenda, that has caused my whole being to relax its grasping after how I think things should be.  Maybe I can let go just a little more and slide into that place of just being.