Tuesday, May 31, 2011

"The Unknown, The Territory of the Creative

I am hoping for rain tomorrow.  Did you hear me say that?  I can't believe I just said that.  But there is an ulterior motive.  If it rains I can stay in and paint all day!  Recently I have been weed obsessed.  I jump out of bed in the morning and race outside to spend time in the company of weeds.

 The definition of a weed is simply a plant growing where we don't want it to.  Aren't we bossy, we humans, wanting plants to grow only in particular places.  We are so not like the natural world that just accepts things wherever they grow.  I aspire to be more like nature but meanwhile I have my own ideas of beauty which doesn't include small green things growing in pathways and filling up ancient herb beds in a helter skelter sort of way.  And this idea of beauty comes with a cost.

I have spent many days working in my yard as a weed tamer, (not as dangerous as lion taming and no whip or chair required) hoeing and digging and pulling until my wrists and finger tips ache and my hands look like those of an ancient peasant woman.  I love it really, pulling weeds.  I love being outside with the birds and the squirrel, the deer.  I remind the quail not to eat the grass seed I've spread on some bare patches and listen to the buzz of hummingbird wings aiming themselves at my sagging prayer flags. I am treated to the strong sound and huge expanse of eagle wings cruising past me as I work.  Sometimes I think about the spiritual aspect of weeding.  As I pull each misplaced green thing, I think of weeding my mind of its less wholesome thoughts, it's worries, it's doubts, it's inclination to manufacture problems and blockages where really there is just open space and situations.

But back to painting and the creative life.  Here's a wonderful talk by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche where he takes a broad approach to creativity.  He talks about living creatively with openness and joy as essential ingredients to this way of being.  He invites us to open to our resistance and fears, to "host" them as he calls it.  He invites us to enliven ourselves by orienting ourselves to what's right in our life.  He teases that this will energize us more than a cup of coffee in a mid afternoon slump.

I also wanted to draw your attention to a great creative resource I have been exploring.  It's a site called the awakened eye created by miriam louisa who has been exploring the ground of creativity for many years.  She has a free 8 chapter ebook of exercises that I have plunged into which are inspirational and packed with years of exploration and teaching.  Her site also offers bios and links of artists that explore the dual path of spirituality and creativity.  She has kindly featured me there in her latest post.  Her list of artists is extensive and a fun place to wander away the hours.  I have discovered many amazing artists with fascinating orientations to their art.  Favourites of mine such as Frederick Franck (her site is a nod to Franck and his book of the same title, "the awakened eye"), John Daido Loori, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche all rub elbows together here.

I will end with a little teaser from the first of  miriam louisa's ebooks.  "Making things provides an opportunity to observe all the strategies we blindly, as well as intentionally use to avoid encountering the unknown.  The unknown is the territory of the creative."  Join me tomorrow at the corner of unknown and openness.  I'll be the one in the tatty sweater with the crazy hair and a rumpled paint brush in my hand.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Stuff of Happiness

Here's a page out of my sketch book (made from recycled paper). I've been sitting in the evening by the fire (am I using up non-renewable resources?) and playing in my sketch book.  This Buddha is done in a grey conte crayon. Is conte crayon stuff, is it toxic, how and where is it produced?  Do you see where I'm going with this?  I know, I need to offer a few more clues, no not Colonel Mustard in the Library with the candlestick type clues.

This afternoon we went to hear Annie Leonard (from The Story of Stuff) speak.  I'm thinking about what she has to say from a spiritual and more specifically a  Buddhist perspective.

Stuff.... Big topic.  And Leonard never takes a holier than thou, guilt inducing stance.  She staunchly says she is not anti- stuff.  In fact she comments how a lot of environmentalists shoot themselves in the foot (my words, not hers, but ouch, it still hurts) by pointing pinkies and making people feel guilty for using the wrong light bulbs or forgetting to turn the water off when we brush our teeth.  Did you ever learn anything in this way?  Did guilt ever make you a better person??  So in a way, Leonard is a lot like a Buddhist.  No proselytizing.  She aims to motivate, inspire and empower.

But back to stuff.  Does stuff make us happy?  From a Buddhist perspective, hitching your happiness to the wagon of outer things, of any ilk, takes us down the road of disappointment or the boulevard of suffering at some point.  Leonard talked about how the happiness quotient in the US and, by extension, we will presume the western world, has gone down since the 1950's.  We have a record amount of stuff available to us, a mind tangling array of goods, and yet we are less happy.  Logic would tally that equation and tell us that stuff doesn't make us happy.

Studies, Annie tells us, report that the experience of meaningful community is what makes humans happy, not stuff.  Yet we have, at the urging of corporate and media influence, become consumers first, members of community second.  And here in lies the angst of the modern world, we are hamsters in the corporate ferris wheel.  We often define the solution to environmental issues in terms of buying "different" stuff, get that green light bulb, that organic t-shirt, green gratification.  Not so, says Leonard.  In fact changing our buying habits may lull us into the complacent sleep of thinking we have taken environmental action.  Things really need to change from the top down, Leonard tells us.  She calls things like recycling the bottom end of the chain (is that out-house environmentalism we're practicing?), not that things like recycling are not important.  But they won't ever fully solve the problem, the one that has us using 1 1/2 planets when we only have one.

She frames the problem like this.  We are hurting the planet.  We are hurting each other.  And we aren't having any fun doing it.  And the good news is, there is a way to do things differently.  Sounded a little bit like an environmentalists version of the 4 noble truths.  1. There is suffering, that would be in the hurting.  The way we are using up natural resources and producing toxins hurts all sentient and non sentient beings.  The sad news flash that you won't find on Fox news is that the corporate appetite for increased economic growth and profits over human health and well being is impacting this planet in a big way.  For most of us this is not news.  We're just not sure what to do about it.

Interestingly Leonard points out we're not having any fun wrecking the planet.  Our general experience as modern humans is one of less happiness, more hours of work, less leisure time, more stress and less community engagement.  And what do we do when we're feeling less happy?  According to Leonard we watch TV (Americans on average watch 5 hrs a day, so Canucks we probably do too) and then we buy stuff because the ads on TV tell us stuff will make us happy or at least improve our lives.  In my mind this corresponds to the 2nd noble truth, attachment is the cause of suffering.  We're attached to the belief in stuff as a solution to our unhappiness and we're attached to the temporary pleasure we get from having new stuff.  Pleasure is the short story and not a substitute for happiness, which is a deeper sense of well being.  We are lured by the temporary hit we get from the endless cycle of new stuff (eek, we're stuff junkies).

The third noble truth (there is a way to the end of suffering) is tied in to Leonard's comment that we're not having any fun and we can do something about it (maybe we might have fun in the process).  The 4th noble truth offers the path to the end of suffering (the 8 fold path in our Buddhist list of lists).  This is the call to action in "the story of stuff's" version of the 4 noble truths.  Leonard's premise is that we need to take action at the beginning of the cycle of stuff (it's kind of like draining the ditch, instead of spraying the mosquitoes).  We need to design stuff that does not become obsolete, stuff that isn't toxic.  We need to use stuff in ways that don't chew up our non renewable resources and spit them out in a toxic heap.  And this takes grass roots action by educated, motivated and concerned citizens.  We need to work the top end of the cycle to make real change.  We need to get into those engaged community huddles and figure out how to do this.

So check out Leonard's site and another site called The Good Guide that rates consumer goods.  It is all about being aware (a good Buddhist starting point) and taking right action.  We do these things Leonard points out because "they are the right thing to do".  Leonard spoke as a fund raiser for Raffi's Centre For Child Honoring, that's another topic all of it's own.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Meeting My Special Person

Do you have a "special" person in your life? One that my friend the Zen monk calls "your great teacher". Not too long ago I spent some time with my "special" person. My joke was he shows me how good my practice isn't.

And it's always interesting for me. Sometimes I prepare myself and I "do okay" in my assessment. No blood is spilled, no unkind words are uttered, no looks to make anyone wither are flashed, no feelings of irritation ooze from my pores polluting the general atmosphere.

This time I did "okay" for a while but as the days of our togetherness passed my patience began to wither. I did what I could. I took time alone, I busied myself. But there came a point where unkindness oozed from my pores. I said a couple of impatient things and generally behaved in ways that did not contribute to the energy field in a helpful way, you might say.

I was left with a karmic hangover. Pass the spiritual aspirin. So while I lamented a little over it, in the end my examination of the process was in an effort to see what I might do differently next time I get together with my special person or meet someone who else who possesses the special qualities that seem to push my buttons.

What my postmortem revealed was that when I finally "caved" there was a definite lapse in awareness. Someone was continually poking at me (at least that's how it felt to me) and instead of seeing it as a flashing red light to take another breath and be extra vigilant about my response, I saw a red flag and responded in an old habitual way, a little silent anger.

I also realized I was doing the best I could and that I felt bad because I had "expectations" of how I should manage the situation. The upside of remorse however is that we get to examine our actions and consider our options for future behaviour.

I realized that my next meeting with my "special" person is an opportunity to do intense awareness practice. I am almost looking forward to it. How do you work with your special person?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Gladdening The Heart

This picture doesn't do it justice but this is a wonderful painting by Vancouver Island artist, Coco Jones shown here in her book, "Surviving Great Expectations". This stunning painting was sold last year and all proceeds went to the Tibetan earthquake cause. I have always loved her art because it appears spontaneous and carefree, full of humour and colour and a passion for life. As an artist I know that sometimes the appearance of spontaneity comes with great effort and care (and sometimes not). In reading Coco's book I am reminded that to experience the joy in life we have to be willing to move through our pain and suffering. There is no other way. We can't hide from it or pretend it doesn't exist. I can give first hand evidence that humming loudly or hiding around a corner only works for a very short time when dealing with the personal potholes of life.

What I am thinking about today is "Gladdening The Heart" and Coco's work does gladden my heart. Don't you love that string of words, gladdening the heart? Today when I read the post over at Oxherding called "Just Say No", again the idea of gladdening the heart came to mind. I have heard it a number of times in the Dharma talks, at the Vipassana group where I sit and last week I listened to several recorded Dharma talks here and was reminded how important this principle is to me. The basic premise is that life can get grim if we don't sometimes take action to "gladden the heart" to uplift ourselves, to count our blessings, to see how full our glass really is, to remind ourselves of our strengths (in a non ego centred kind of way).

Now I have been told that gratitude and a glad heart will arise out of practice and sometimes even for curmudgeons like me this is true but I find I need a little help. Otherwise the way can become a bit heavy slogging for me (get out the gumboots). I need to see my defilements and where I wallow in the hindrances. I need to be aware of my personal neurosis (my Jewish mother used to say: "we all have our own mishigas", which means craziness). But I feel ever so much lighter when I do a little metta practice or gratitude practice. Even though I know this self is not solid and fixed I need to remind myself that this swiss-cheese like self has strengths that are valuable. This gladdening of the heart offers me the steadiness and courage I need to make wholesome choices, especially when the going gets tough. If I am feeling dour or down, my choices tend to be less helpful.

So I invite you to gladden your heart, to say something nice to yourself and those around you, to think something uplifting, even if it's only, gosh isn't it nice today, I don't have a toothache. How will you gladden your heart?

Monday, May 16, 2011

What Are You Adding To The Energy Soup?

This tree is just down the road from me. I call it the heart tree. It's a bit hard to see in the photo but people have gathered stones that are shaped like hearts and tucked them into the mossy crevices of this living tree. It makes you smile just to see it.

In my imaginings, one creative soul tucked in the first rock and then others joined in, searching the ground for heart-shaped stones and adding them to the collection.

The tree reminded me of a Dharma talk I heard a while back. Heather talked about how we live in a teeming energy field. Everything is alive with energy. We are part of the ingredients in a giant pot of energy soup, if you like. Her question to us was, when the going gets tough (or anytime really) it's good to ask ourselves what do we want to contribute to the energy field? What do we want to contribute to the energy soup, a bitter, slightly off ingredient or something sweet and tasty.

I loved this question as something to ask myself as I go about my day. And I had the opportunity to answer it as I spent Friday in the city doing errands; getting a haircut, doing banking, buying vitamins, and generally rushing about before overnighting with a friend. As I ate a muffin and walked down a busy street I decided to pass a fellow walking a little more slowly than I. As I passed him, he picked up his pace. This felt oddly uncomfortable, so I picked up mine. And then I heard a quiet, but not too quiet voice say, "Do you always cut people off?" In my mind I had not cut him off as I did not tuck myself back in front of him but somehow he felt cut off. Quickly my mind thought I have an opportunity here. So I slowed down and said, "did it feel like I cut you off, that was not my intention. I apologize if that's how it seemed. Really what I am doing is rushing about doing a bunch of errands." And at that point we began a little chat, remarked on the sunny day and when we parted at the stop lights, he wished me a nice day. It was my impression that I had not sent him on his way to stew about how rude and inconsiderate people are and that perhaps he even felt a bit cheered by our exchange. I felt like I had added at least a pinch of something wholesome to the energy soup. In the past I probably would have shrugged and thought, he's having a bad day and carried on.

So I offer this to you, this little question, that can be answered in tiny ways, like my walking experience or in large ways, especially with dear ones. What are you adding to the energy soup? A great thought I find, when things get a bit dicey.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Begin Anywhere

This Buddha is called "Begin Anywhere" for the words I stamped on the canvas. They are words from designer, Bruce Mau's "Incomplete Manifesto For Growth" which I love. They are words attributed to composer John Cage.

Sometimes we just impart too much meaning on things. We turn problems or tasks into their own planetary systems and then we get overwhelmed by their orbit. Sometimes we just have a hard time getting out of "think" mode. Begin Anywhere is advice for taking the stickiness out of places we get hung up rather than advice that supports rash, careless behaviour.

Begin anywhere is an antidote to our old friends sloth and torpor those comfy Buddhist bedfellows (snuggled in their with the other hindrances of desire, doubt, anger, and restlessness ). Inertia has it's own weight (originally I typed wait, which may be more accurate!) And if I were a science nerd (I'm just a garden variety nerd) I'd regale you with the science of inertia but alas I was too slothful at school to pay much attention to science.

So "Begin Anywhere" Buddha offers us the lightness of, it's no big deal, just start somewhere. This reminds me of the Robert Motherwell quote, "I begin each painting with a series of mistakes." With some stunning results, I might add! Anyone who writes or paints is familiar with the fear of that perfect, empty blankness, the one we are sure we are going to ruin. So we avoid. We clean the toilet, we take the dog for a walk, we do this and that until we've used up all the time or worn ourselves out. Anything to avoid our imagined failure.

Begin Anywhere reminds us to get the energy moving which is often all that is needed. I remember a story James Baraz told in his "Awakening Joy" course. He said when he was young he came to a point in his life where he had a few directions he could go. When he couldn't decide he went to see a fortune teller hoping to get an answer. And the wise fortune teller said, just do something, it doesn't matter what. I know I have often seen this principle at work in my own life. What is that quote by Appollinaire, "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 whatever you are thinking of doing, wondering if you should, puzzled how to go about it, this little painting is offering a wink and a nudge, "begin anywhere"

Friday, May 6, 2011

What Colour Is Your Buddha?

Someone liked my blue painting called "Buddha Matters" but wondered if it was available in reds and pinks and so here it is! It's fun sometimes to pick up the challenge! Can I do the old in a new way? Can I do it without expectations? What comes up for me as I imagine what the other person wants?

And I wonder if that isn't the eternal predicament of samsara, to want the red one when there is only a blue one. But I am probably turning a practical "match the sofa" issue into a spiritual conundrum??

It is an interesting issue for me. I love to see everything in terms of the Dharma and yet as my daughter would say, sometimes a fox is just a fox. And that is just as important for me to see. It's okay for things to be nothing other than what they are, just this, period the end. Nothing fancy, nothing for the mind to curl itself around. It's okay to want the Buddha to match the sofa.

Lately I find myself relaxing more into life, into "just this", into the perfectness of my imperfect self. Am I babbling? Is this Dharma babble? Pass the arrowroot cookies, please. I luxuriate in not worrying in my introverted, navel gazing kind of way about what others are thinking, if I look stupid, or if I should be doing something different. I am happy working in my garden. I don't need to ask a question after the Dharma talk. I don't need to be clever or efficient. I am happy to look at the giant trees out the window and bask in the "not needing". For me, it is an important karmic task to relax into the perfection of just being. We cannot make ourselves wise, it is simply the fruits of training and comes in its own time.

The Dharma talk the other night after meditation was long and contained much wisdom. I wished I'd had a notebook. Just off the ferry from a retreat Heather was brimming with wise and clear reflection. It seemed, she said, that everyone's "issues" that they brought to her had to do with relationships. She reminded us how our troubles in relationship stem from focusing on differences, rather than our shared predicament in this world; that country, those people, my needs, your opinions.

Rather than noticing how we are scooping water out of the same sinking boat, we focus on your inappropriate footwear for the boat ride or how she hogs the best seat in the boat, how he doesn't consider my needs. She reminded us that the trick was to focus on our shared dilemma, how we are all cold and tired and hungry and how we all want to get to the other shore. This is the way to build compassion, to understand the other. "Just like me, you want to be happy, just like me, you want to be accepted and understood."

So while there is a blue Buddha and a red Buddha, they are both simply Buddhas. We appreciate them for the same reason, they remind us of our common Buddha nature and our aspiration to bring more harmony and compassion to this sometimes crazy world. What, what's that you say? You really would prefer a green Buddha?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Dharma Is Everywhere

The Dharma is everywhere, it infuses everything, just waiting for us to stumble upon it. Sometimes it is screaming in our face, "wake up" and sometimes it is peeking out, shyly, in it's humourous little incarnation giving us a nudge and a poke.

My partner took this picture at a garden centre and he said it reminded him of the last lines in the movie "I Heart Huckabees" where some folks are going to a protest gathering. One character says., "bring your own chains." The protagonist quips back, "we always do." I love that movie!

But I digress, before I even start. I must confess to the guilty pleasure of reading the 3 giant Steig Larson mysteries. Not something I would ever have imagined reading. They were given to me by dear friends, saying try it, you might like it. I have teased that they are a bit like crack, once I started I have a hard time staying away. Now these books base their attraction on creating polarized heroes and villains, some intrigue and mystery, sex, politics and lots of suspense. No great writing here just a cliffhanger that pulls you forward. The author has an uncanny knack of turning just about everyone who reads this stuff into a cheering section for an odd hero on her journey.

I have wondered why I am reading them, except for the delicious experience of kicking back and disappearing into another world. But last weekend when I went out into the garden I discovered the Dharma of "The Girl Who Played With Fire". I was faced with a garden gloriously responding to the sun and copious quantities of rain. It was a garden overflowing with weeds. Spritely yellow dandelion heads were everywhere. My habitual response to situations like this is to feel overwhelmed. I get overwhelmed and it sucks the energy out of me. I don't know where to start and the job seems too enormous. When this happens I work away in a despairing kind of way. I am not having fun and all manner of knowing how to approach a task seem to disappear. It is always a disheartening and grim experience with serious karmic overtones.

But suddenly I was grasped by the tenacious energy of a few of the characters in the "crack novels". Those characters reminded me of the will to keep going against all odds and somehow I was reminded to lighten up, enjoy the day and keep working, one weed at a time. It turned the whole situation around. So there is the surprising vote for reading things that might seem unlikely. The Dharma IS everywhere. Everything, everyone has something to offer if we only put on our Dharma headsets and tune in. Happy hunting.

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Bubble of Me

So many things this morning are reminding me of the quote, "We see things not as they are, but as we are." As I was sitting in meditation this morning the words "the bubble of me" popped into my head (bubble popping pun intended).

The me fits the bubble analogy, I think, because it's closed and protective and comfortable, all qualities of a good bubble. Bubbles are transparent so we hardly notice them, in fact they might give us the illusion that they are hardly there. Some bubbles are delicate and short lived and others are strong an durable and bendy. Remember those lovely brightly coloured bottles of suds with wands we puffed away at as children?? But I digress.

We had a lovely day with friends on Saturday with a visit to the Saturday market, a walk in the woods accompanied by 2 lovely well behaved canines. The sun shone and spring greenness lit our world. It all culminated in a delicious potluck dinner which of course gave rise to conversation. At one juncture there was some difference of opinion on something (pleasant and polite). But it reminded me that no fixed truth existed and that each of the varying opinions possessed a quality similar to it's owner. No one was particularly swayed by the reasoning of others, each coming and leaving with the same opinion. And in this group were some serious students of the Dharma. Our bubbles briefly colliding.

So this morning it became very clear to me how strong this bubble of self is and generally how unaware of it we are. It's like we're encased in these little bubbles and our communication consists of bumping into each others bubbles. So easy to see the ground for misunderstanding and miscommunication in this world, the ground for anger and hatred and war and violence. Depending on the strength of the bubble, the attachment to the bubble, the karmic inclinations to protect the bubble. So many bubbles; the bubble of self, the bubble of family, of country, of ethnicity, of religion. It is just interesting to watch our own little bubble making and with awareness and diligence to work at thinning the walls of that bubble. How's your bubble?