Monday, December 31, 2012

Old Moon, New Adventures In Being Human

The Full Cold Moon on Dec 28th
It's new year's eve and the light is just beginning to drain from the day.  A small deer stands in the meadow down by the pond. He stares strangely toward the house of a neighbour that hunts his kind. It's a strange behaviour that I've witnessed often on our property.  Can he sense something?  What catches his attention? Am I imagining this? Or are the roosters just making noise? I really can't know, in a definitive way.

His small gesture reminds me that this year I have come to more deeply appreciate that this world is alive with energy that I cannot see, pulsing with sounds I can't hear and filled with things I cannot understand with my linear mind. In short this year has convinced me that world is a magical place, full of mystery. It is a blend of simplicity and complexity that defies wrapping it up neatly in a ball.  It is what makes life truly tantalizing.

I have learned that to live in this world with some grace it is important to be able to hold opposing thoughts in my mind. While I have learned that I am not in control of what happens, I have also learned that there is power in my intentions.  So while I can relax and not push so hard for what I "want" to happen, I can also hold the good and beautiful in my mind in an unattached way. Maybe it sounds confusing when I try to reduce it to mere words, but when I can actually live this way it is strong and powerful.

I think I was born knowing that nothing is ever wasted if you learn something from it, but this year I've bumped up against this one in ways that have left me bruised and scraped and deeply humbled. I'm not at all as nice as I hoped I was.  Perhaps I need to get a dog so I can see myself through her eyes, but alas I am a cat person.  I've learned that anger can bubble up like a mad cauldron and that it can be hard to keep from getting burnt and burning others with it's fire.  And sometimes you just need to see those glowing embers to really get it. I've learned how tangled up with expectation, attachment, hurt and self protection, anger can be.

I've learned that so much hinges on gratitude and intention.  I've learned that I need to remind myself of that everyday, that I have the choice, to lift 5 lbs of gratitude each morning or let the muscle atrophy out of neglect. I've learned how these feelings inspire the beauty of the day to smile back at me.

And I hope I've learned a smidge about kindness and compassion. I hope that sometimes when people say or do something that seems unkind that I recall my own less than stellar behaviour and am reminded that we are all riding in the same leaky little boat.

And I have learned that sometimes I have more choices than I think, that I can find a creative solution when I think I feel like I'm backed into a corner. I like to think I have learned just a little more this year how to follow that still, small voice inside.

moon through rain on the window

So I would just like to say thank-you to 2012 for being such a rich year, full of learning and magic and beauty, peppered with the inevitable sadness that comes from living a life here on earth.

I wish you all a new year of great joy and health, filled with all the beauty this world has to offer (and a few excellent adventures). May you venture out past your comfortable boundaries, may you have some deeply satisfying conversations, may you enjoy the warmth of interesting humans and animals. May the sun of 2013 warm your bones and the breezes blow sweetly through your hair. May you be fully alive. These are my wishes for you as you step with gusto into another new year.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Plowing The Neural Pathways and Opening The Heart

Continents of the Heart 24"x 24" oil, cold wax, earth pigments
I don't really have much to add to the general conversation out there so I've been tending the fire and making cookies and being quiet. There's lots to make our heads spin these days, lots to sink our worrying minds and sharp teeth into: abuses of power in places we think it shouldn't exist, guns, apocalypses of one sort or another, holiday madness or gladness, depending on how you slice it.  Lots to leave us wracked and soaked and bitter and curdled (hm sounding a bit like my Christmas pudding)

In the end, for me, it's all about how it settles in the heart.  What trails and paths are etched there in the neural backroads of my brain? What journey do I choose wittingly or out of habit? Do I retrace the slippery old paths of anger and disgust, contempt and self righteousness? Or do I slip of down a green trail into the forest to nurture my heart, wondering what I can add to the world?

A quote by Ethan Nichtern reminds me of which trail to take when I come to a fork in the road: "Setting clear intentions is so important. Most of the time, we get stuck, not because we have bad intentions, but because we just have no idea what our intentions actually are."

I've been liking this "shift thing" that's going on out there. I'm liking the picture of indigenous people showing the "civilized world" how to save the planet and regain a sane relationship to it. Don't laugh, stranger things have happened and you've been watching them courtesy of the media.  I've been watching some of the goings on down in South America and listening to people like Bruce Lipton and Tom Campbell who make the scientific leap that it's all about love, that the mind is a powerful tool for healing, that energy is real and this world is a place of great beauty and mystery.  Yeah, you might think it sounds like I've fallen on my head, but sometimes that's what it takes to knock out the old to make room for the new.

The Heart of Winter 12"x12" oil, cold wax, earth pigments
And seeing as it's gift giving time here in the western world, here's a quote from Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche that seems like it would be a great gift to ourselves, our loved ones, and the planet.  New world, new gifts, right?  Take back that toaster, return that  fuzzy sweater.  Instead how about this, no wrapping required, satisfaction guaranteed?  "Imagine craving absolutely nothing from the world. Imagine cutting the invisible strings that so painfully bind us: what would that be like? Imagine the freedoms that come from the ability to enjoy things without having to acquire them, own them, possess them. Try to envision a relationship based on acceptance and genuine care rather than expectation. Imagine feeling completely satisfied and content with your life just as it is. Who wouldn’t want this? This is the enjoyment of non-attachment."

Sheesh, that's a lot of words for a person that had nothing to say, don't you think?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Bidding For Good And Embracing Your Introversion

Diamonds & Rust Buddha 8"x10" at the Shambhala Auction
It's ramping up to that time of year when the consumer machine starts screaming in technicolour. I suspect that a lot of folks who read this blog, just kinda cover their ears.  Me too.  But there are a few worthwhile things out there, if you do indulge in a gift or two.  One of the things I've supported over the last number years is the Shambhala Sun Auction. There's lots of goodies over at the site, including this small original by moi (as Miss Piggy would say).

As a self confessed introvert, I've always tended to avoid a lot of holiday who-ha. And did someone mention introverts? I guess that would have been me? It's been on my mind because I've been reading "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain. I watched her TED talk a while back but the book is filled with so much more. If you're an introvert (and 50% of us are) you will find this a compelling read. I have always said I don't do small talk and so the holiday parties can be a bit nerve wracking. And then there's the overstimulation of noise, lots of people and so on. I feel like a deer in the headlights and would rather wash dishes or clear the table than schmooz.

It's so interesting to see so much information collected in print and supported by research that confirms many of my experiences. Doesn't mean we shouldn't go to parties, but we will probably feel more comfortable having a deeper conversation with individuals on the periphery of the action.

Cain covers a lot of ground in her book, and suggests the healthy thing to do is embrace who we are (it has a physiological basis) rather than thinking there's something wrong with us and that if we're going to be successful and happy we need to suck it up and embrace extroversion.  That's often the message schools and work places put out.

And of course after we've embraced who we are, we might want to stretch a little to support causes and work that we're passionate about (that's apparently when we're most successful in our stretch).  Many creative types are introverts and she devotes a whole chapter to the idea that a lot of creative work is solitary work, not "groupthink" work. Remember my attempt to paint with a group last year?  Nope, didn't work for me. I bowed out politely a while back.

So maybe you have an introvert on your list who might enjoy this read. They might be interested to learn that researcher Jerome Kagan was able predict introversion based on a "startle" response in 4 mo old babies. We're reactive and prone to overstimulation, some of us even enter the "highly sensitive" category (a term that makes me cringe) We are not defective but we are different and Cain offers us lots of strategies for survival if we don't already have them. And maybe we just need the confirmation. Oh, yeah, it's okay to go home after intensely social events and put on our jammys and cuddle up with a book. Great stories and strategies fill the book and make it a good read. And us introverts, we love our books! I am  currently in hibernation and recovery mode after a week of 2 different sets of house guests. I am reveling in silence. Where do you fall in the thirst for silence and alone time?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mapping The Heart

Heartwood 24"x12"
I am mapping something these days. Every painting that emerges resembles a map of sorts. There is a strangeness to it all as if I have become a cartographer, an explorer recording and etching out the roads and river of some landscape that seems important to me. But perhaps every true creative experience feels like this?

I have come following an unknown river with a paintbrush and some pencils. Little continents and landforms appear, rising and sinking into oceans of grey and white, and taupe. Perhaps I have taken up membership in some strange society of cartographers of the heart. Surely my fees in this club are overdue?

The rivers and roads arise from the wandering of sharp tools across the painted surface, small, fierce nomadic creatures, exploring the terrain. The scraping nomads need to be held loosely, with love and trust, so they can trace out their own trail because they know best. The marks that emerge have their own lives. I must let go to bring them into being. These lines remind me that we are never in control anyway. It is merely our human delusion.

And the landforms that emerge are pleasingly irregular, tracing coastlines of the wandering mind, lakes of deep thought, rivers of delight, oceans of sadness.

Geography of the Heart 16"x16"
The webs of crevices and cracks tell stories about the beauty of imperfection. Tracing tiny lines I am reminded that the richness of the world is revealed to me when I attend to the details of life. The crows feet of the land spread out to show it's smiling face.

And while some of the work is done by attending to detail. I need to move outward and view the work from my space capsule. I am reminded that everything is composed of both attention to detail and an ability to stand back and see the big picture.

Road Trip 16"x16"
My map making project went on retreat this past weekend, spending time with master cartographer of the heart and mind, James Baraz. We spent the weekend practicing paying kind attention to being present. I learned that breaths are like snowflakes, no two are the same. I will offer you two tiny pearls from my expedition. If Joseph Conrad wrote "Heart of Darkness", I think James Baraz wrote "Heart of Lightness".

 Ram Dass said: The secret of contentment is to plumb the depths of the moment.

James told of some insights he had reciting the following phrase while on retreat. He said it to himself but then also envisioned other people. He said the really tough one was thinking of his son and saying this: "You are the heir to your karma. My happiness depends on my actions not on my wishes.
Islands of the Heart 8"x10"

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Chicken of Thought, The Egg of Feeling

Road Through The Mountains 24"x24"
Yesterday when I was working on this piece pictured above I noticed a tightening in my body, a sense of nervousness. "What's this?" I thought? And then it struck me that this was my body responding to subtle background thought "I'm  afraid of making a mistake." The sensation and thought  were sewed tightly together, in the same way you might wonder what comes first, the chicken or the egg.

This time instead of being captured by this familiar lurker,  I caught him red handed and had a little laugh, which made him slink away. "Now what am I afraid of, this is my painting. That's a crazy thought. How could I make a mistake? And if I don't like the next mark, I can paint over it or wipe it off." But I can't tell you how many times I've been captured and thrown in the trunk by this thought.  And sometimes when we look we'll see a seminal thought like this one, that has run like a long thread across the days of our lives, tying us up in little knots along the way. On how many occasions have I frozen for fear of making a mistake of some sort?  See how therapeutic painting can be!

I am getting more comfortable in my exploration of abstraction. Maybe it's partly because I'm finding materials that seem to lend themselves more to what I want to translate onto the page or .... maybe I've just worn down the part of me that cares so much by painting some pretty awful stuff!

I made my own cold wax using an organic orange cleaner called Orange a-Peel. I cut up chunks of beeswax and dropped them into a jar of orange stuff the same way you would make regular cold wax. It melts into this luscious creamy goo. I must warn you this mixture is stinky, in an orange solvent sort of way but more tolerable to me than the chemical or turp based solvent ones. I bought some white oil paint that is water soluble and odourless (doesn't necessarily mean it's non toxic though)  to go with the earth pigments I ordered. I am also using ash from the wood stove and some powdered milk paint.  So I am the studio witch of the north, mixing up strange things to rub and brush onto my canvas. Haven't resorted to eye of newt yet (it's not vegetarian).

Route 42

I have discovered I like things that look like rock and old cement floors, these natural and neutral palettes with organic and intricate patterns and textures. Go figure, but there you have it.  I started looking around for what really interested me as a basis for my abstraction and that was it. I have no idea where I'm going but I feel some sense of going somewhere, if that makes any sense. For a long time it was just pure frustration, but that landscape of ennui seems to have faded in the rearview mirror (at least for now). I went to a great artist's talk last night by Jason Pollen and he said the difference between art and craft is that with a craft you know where you are going (I'm building this bird house, I'm making this quilt) but with art the final destination is unknown. And you know how that makes us feel a lot of time. We like to tie all those loose ends up and feel in control. Yes I know where I'm going, it's that little town about 100 miles away and I have a hotel reservation there tonight. Standing on the edge of the unknown is one of those valuable principles of the Dharma.

And I am lucky I still have most of my hair (this has nothing to do with orange solvent or ash from the fire). I just finished building a Wordpress website and was reminded what a low tolerance level I have for frustration.  Ah, more good Dharma practice. Be civil and kind to that online support guy who is giving you advice that requires a Martian translator and tells you to read the instructions again, more carefully, this time because it's all there.  But in the end I have a place to house a good sampling of my images. And it feels good to have wrestled with wordpress and won. Go have a peek here if you feel inclined.

That's about it at this end of the world. It feels like it's getting ready to rain for 40 days and 40 nights. And this has nothing to do with the American election, I'm pretty sure. What are you wrestling with these days, or smiling at?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Practice of the Open Road

Fall makes me think of travel, of road trips. It would seem more seasonal to  think of apples and soup and warm sweaters? But such is the deep groove of habit, carved like a grinning pumpkin face into the soft flesh of memory. We have traveled often in the fall, before the winter rains set in and the inward tug of winter gathers us in front of the fire.  So it was the tantalizing call of warm breezes and restless feet that urged us to pack a little bag, fill the car with gas and head off; Pema dispensing Dharma talks on "The Way of the Bodhisattva"from the CD player, interrupted occasionally by a little shakuhachi flute or some David Whyte poetry as we covered the miles. The windows brimmed with wild ocean in Oregon and parched hills in California.  We stopped to walk beaches and explore towns, sampling local kombucha and freshly roasted coffee.  Fine weather followed us all the way.

We took on the practice of the open road, just going where it seemed good to go, chatting with who seemed to appear, marvelling at the variety of sentient beings and beautiful vistas that fill this amazing planet.  In this post I will impersonate one of those little gnomes that poses in various locations. 

Here I am at Cannon Beach on the Oregon Coast. The wind has blown my gnome hat off! 

More Cannon Beach sans gnomes

open road, gnomes busy navigating and driving

large footed gnomes have wandered off into the fog

Many gnomes cross The Golden Gate every day, but quiet on Sunday mornings as gnomes sleep in

Coffee is serious business at "The Republic" in the Mission District of SF. You must have a mac book pro to have coffee here (even if you're a gnome). I warn you they will check at the door. You can wear your kilt, your dog can bark inside, but you must have a mbp. I don't make the rules, I'm just sharing them with you!

Gnomes advice for San Francisco: Check your brakes, wear sensible shoes with lots of traction (yes, they can have pointy gnome toes, maybe soccer shoes?) and carry a shopping bag, it's the law in California as of Oct 1st (in Texas, I think you have to carry a gun) Speaking of guns, I did see guns for sale in the Fred Meyer store (with camo and pink on them) and boxes of ammo on the shelf, quite creepy in a voyeuristic kind of way to a Canuck gnome.

Gnomes are allowed out after dark, but must be careful not to roll down hill, after long day of walking across the city.

Lovely Buddha in the Japanese Garden. Gnomes (and escorts) are allowed in for free from 9 am-10 am!

Gnomes checking for trolls under bridge

Great find, Diego Rivera fresco at old mission, now an art school. Gnomes can buy water here before descending into North Beach where pizza is the food of choice.

Gnomes report that Jack Kerouc & Allan Ginsberg are probably hiding in the basement. Gnome rule: must purchase at least one book of poetry before leaving the book store.

Musicians put on impromptu concert to honour gnome passing by

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The 84th Problem

Buddha House 16" 20" on display at The Naam
How many problems do you have? Do you have 83 or 84? Or perhaps you have more? No matter how many problems you have, the Buddha thinks that your real problem is the 84th problem?

Do you know the story of the 84th problem? I know you do, I mean in your everyday life. I'm guessing that if I know it well, you probably have had a little dust up with it yourself. In fact I spend a lot of time wrestling with the 84th problem and I never manage to get it into a figure 4 leg lock, or is that a head lock?  So much for my wrestling skills. Whenever things go "wrong" according to how I think they should be the 84th problem has got me down for the count.

Here's a short version of the 84th problem. A farmer goes to see the Buddha because his crops have failed. He's heard that the Buddha is very wise and the farmer is hoping for some help. He tells the Buddha his story and the Buddha tells him he can't help him with that problem. The farmer then complains a little about his wife. "Sorry," the Buddha says, "can't help you with that."  

My kids, they don't listen to me or respect me enough."

"Sorry, can't do anything about that."

 The farmer offers a few more problems and then laments about the Buddha being so unhelpful. Finally the Buddha offers a little help, "Everyone always has 83 problems, one goes away, another one appears. What I can help you with is your 84th problem."

"What's that?" asks the farmer.

 "That you don't want to have any problems."

Now if we could just get over the 84th problem, we'd be fine with things as they are, whatever that happens to be. To just give up our wrestling match with life, that's the simple task. The simple task that's so hard to remember when things don't go "our way". It doesn't mean we never take action or that  we don't work for change. It just means we don't argue with what is. We don't need to reject this moment. And we don't even need to reject our rejection of this moment (a particular favourite of mine). We can just feel what it's like to reject, to wish for something else. "Oh, that's how it feels."

This instruction "to just feel what it feels like" was part of our work from the retreat with Howie Cohn on "calming the restless mind" and is a good antidote to the 84th problem. And I had opportunity to to do a little of this work yesterday. 

We're building a gate like structure to cover the entry to our open carport. The gate will hide our winter fire wood and other messy bits. I started the morning innocently enough, drinking my coffee and browsing through a design book for ideas. Before I knew it I was admiring all the beautiful homes and wishing mine looked like that, or that I lived in this one, and so on and so on. (I am a recovering design junkie).

This simple pleasant task of sitting in the sun looking at a book morphed into "wanting" and spilled over into an agitation, leaving a subtle unrest and dissatisfaction as I went about my day. In the past I might not even have noticed this domino effect but just felt vaguely unhappy. But now I could clearly see it's origins in the craving for a magazine house, one staged and crafted for a picture in a book. And yet the hangover of craving lingered. And I got to notice, "this is what craving and unrest feels like". I followed it's trail, as it had me looking for a snack, long before I was hungry, had me looking through a slightly darkened lense as I headed to my studio. But I digress from the 84th problem.  Or do I?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Are You Enjoying Your Biscuits?

Buddha Bowl 6"x6" mixed media

I like cooking analogies as they relate to life. They help me see what I am cooking deep in the cavernous kitchen of my heart.  Dogen wrote "Instructions To The Cook" which I usually consume in it's slightly soupy watered down form, finding the original just a little too rich for my pea brain. But here's Ed Brown, talking about biscuits. I think we can all get this in it's original, touching form.  Why do most of us spend so much time wishing for the "Pillsbury" version of life instead of tasting what's on our plate, in front of us?  The answer I think, as Ed points out is that we mostly don't even know we're doing it. The advert media earns it's coin and spends it's full energy convincing us we need something else, something more to be just fine, to be happy. Their livelihood depends on it and often we buy what their selling in a deep way. We become restless and hungry for a life that isn't ours. We reject the burnt corners, the bitter skin, but also miss the tender, sweetness of what is fresh and in front of us.

But without further adieu I will put you in Ed's capable and humourous hands and let you ponder the question, "how are my biscuits?" And if you haven't seen it, his movie "How To Cook Your Life" is a delicious morsel.

"When I first started cooking at Tassajara, I had a problem: I couldn't get my biscuits to come out right. I'd follow the recipe and try variations: milk or water, eggs or no eggs, but nothing worked. I had in mind the "perfect" biscuit and these just didn't measure up. After several failures I got to thinking, "Right compared to what?"

Food For The Heart 12"x12" mixed media

Growing up I had made two kinds of biscuits: one was from Bisquick and the other was from Pillsbury. For the Bisquik biscuits, you added milk to the mix and then blobbed spoonfuls onto the pan and didn't even need to roll them out. The biscuits from Pillsbury came in a kind of cardboard can. You rapped the can on the corner of the counter and it popped open. Then you twisted the can open more, put the premade biscuits on the pan and baked them. I really liked those Pillsbury biscuits. Isn't that what biscuits should taste like? Mine just weren't coming out the way they were supposed to.

It's wonderful and amazing the ideas we get about what biscuits should taste like or what a life should look like. Compared to what? Canned biscuits from Pillsbury? Leave It To Beaver? And then we often forget where that idea came from or that we even had an idea. Those perfectly good biscuits just aren't right.

People who ate my biscuits could be extolling their virtues and eating one after the other, but for me they were not right. Finally one day that shifting into place occurred. Not "right"  compared to what? "Oh, no I've been trying to make canned Pillsbury biscuits. Then the exquisite moment of finally tasting my biscuits without comparing them to some (previously hidden) standard: wheaty, buttery, flaky, earthy, sunny, here. Inconceivably delicious, incomparably alive, present, vibrant. In fact much more satisfying than any memory, much more delicious than any concept.

Those moments when you realize your life as it is, is just fine thank-you, can be so stunning and liberating.  Only the insidious comparison to a beautifully prepared, beautifully packaged products make it seem insufficient. The effort to produce life without any dirty bowls, no messy feelings, no depression, no anger is bound to fail- and be endlessly frustrating.

Empty Vessel 6"x6" mixed media

Sometimes when I was cooking my former partner, Patricia would ask if she could help. My response was not pretty, neat or presentable. The lid comes right off and I would explode: "No!" How could an offer of assistance be so traumatic and irritating. Neither of us could understand why my response was so out of scale, so emotionally reactive. But I suppose it depends on which biscuits you're trying to bake.

I couldn't get it for the longest time. Finally I realized I was trying to make myself Mr Perfect, grown-up man, competent, capable and superbly skilled, performing tasks without needing any help. Someone asking, "Anything I can do?" implied that I need help, that somehow I am not competent, independent and grown-up enough to handle the cooking myself. Ironically the desperate attachment to being the perfect grown-up meant being a moody, emotional infant with strange prickliness. "How could you think such a thing?" I would rage. "You've ruined my perfect biscuits, now leave me alone."

As a Zen student one can spend years trying to make it look right, trying to cover the faults, conceal the messes. Everyone knew what the Bisquik Zen student looked like: calm, buoyant, cheerful, energetic, deep, profound. Our motto as one of my friends says was, "looking good."

We've all done it: tried to look good as a husband, wife, or parent. "Yes I have it all together. I'm not greedy or angry or jealous. You're the one who does those things, and if you didn't do it first, I wouldn't do them either. You started it"

"Don't peak behind my cover," we say, and if you do, keep it to yourself. Well to heck with it I say, wake up and smell the coffee. And how about savouring some cook old fashioned home cooking, the biscuits of the day?  - Ed Brown from "The Tassajara Cookbook

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Busy Signal

Street View of The Naam

I just spent some time getting ready for an art show that I hung yesterday at  The Naam, one of my favourite restaurants and a Vancouver institution in the vegetarian world. It's been around since the '60's and if you squint  just right as you sit at your table there, you might catch a hint of patchouli and know that the '60's are still alive and well . 

A table by the window with "Andy's Buddhas"

I could say I've been busy but that would go against something deep inside me. I remember the '90's when "busy" was the answer that everyone wore like a badge. I always wondered what it was all about. What was the deeper meaning of busy?  I had some theories but never cracked the busy code completely. I never felt busy even in the '90's.  I have some sort of internal compass that completely lacks the pointer toward busy.  Recently I discovered this wonderful poem about Busy by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.  I hope you're not to busy to read it!

Room View of The Naam

I will pop in some pics from my show.  And if you're in the Vancouver area, pop in and have a look and don't forget to have the sesame fries and miso gravy, maybe a piece of Shakti cake with hemp seed whipped cream. Happy summer days to you! May you lie on the grass and watch the stars. May you taste the rich tang of a summer tomato warm off the vine. May summer live on in your heart, long after it's warm, lazy rays have made way for the richness of autumn.

My trusty assistant helps me hang the show


"How you been?
Busy.How's work?
How was your week?
Good. Busy.
You name the question, busy is the answer. Yes, yes, I know, we are all terribly busy doing terribly important things. But I think more often than not, busy is simply the most acceptable knee-jerk response.
Certainly there are more interesting, more original and more accurate ways to answer the question "How are you?" I'm hungry for a burrito; I'm envious of my best friend; I'm frustrated by everything that's broken in my house; I'm itchy.
Yet busy stands alone as the easiest way of summarizing all that you do and all that you are. "I am busy" is the short way of saying -- implying -- "My time is filled, my phone does not stop ringing and you (therefore) should think well of me."
Have people always been this busy? Did cave men think they were busy, too? ("This week is crazy -- I've got about 10 caves to draw on. Can I meet you by the fire next week?")
I have a hunch that there is a direct correlation between the advent of coffee bars and the increase in busy-ness. Look at us. We're all pros now at hailing cabs/making Xeroxes/carpooling/performing surgery with a to-go cup in hand. We're skittering about like hyperactive gerbils, high not just on caffeine, but on caffeine's luscious byproduct, productivity. Ah, the joy of doing, accomplishing, crossing off.
As kids, our stock answer to most every question ("What did you do at school today?" "What's new?") was, "Nothing." In our country's history there have been exactly seven kids who responded with a statement other than "nothing," and three of those were named Hanson. Then, somewhere on the way to adulthood, we each took a 180-degree turn. We cashed in our "nothing" for "busy."
I'm starting to think that, like youth, the word nothing is wasted on the young. Maybe we should try re-introducing it into our grown-up vernacular. Nothing. I say it a few times and I can feel myself becoming more quiet, decaffeinated, Zen-ish. Nothing. Now I'm picturing emptiness, a white blanket, a couple ducks gliding on a still pond. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. How did we get so far away from it?"
Amy Krouse Rosenthal 

An orange human and a red Buddha

Friday, August 10, 2012

Freeing The Mind

Peace Is Every Step - Mixed Media on Canvas 24"x24"

Last Sunday, despite 30 degree weather, cloudless skies and beckoning beaches, 60 of us tucked ourselves into a room to learn how to "calm our restless minds" (the title of the day long retreat). And not one of us took the opportunity to slather on sun screen and bolt at the lunch break, a testament to our leader, Howie Cohn who delivers the dharma with an engaging mix of  informality, humour, humility, passion and wisdom.

Turns out the recipe for calming the restless mind lies in the "four foundations of mindfulness", one of those lists in the Buddha's cookbook. Our restless mind finds its birthplace in the fact that we spend a lot of our time either thinking about the future or the past. A lot of churning goes on (are we making butter up there?) as we imagine what might happen or worry about something that has already happened. As the Buddha suggested, a mind that rests in the present moment, neither resisting it, nor clinging to it, is free. In that moment when we are truly right here, with whatever is, the mind is calm. It is fully occupied in experiencing the moment, no space is available for anything else, whether you are tying your shoe or flying an plane.
Dreams of Lhasa Mixed Media on Canvas 12"x12"

And so we tested the Buddha's theory.  That's exactly what the Buddha wanted us to do, "to make it true for ourselves," not to believe it just because someone said it was so. We used the first foundation of mindfulness, mindfulness of the body to help us become present. We followed the breath, in all it's tiny nuances, long and short, rough and smooth, the space at the end of the breath, it's coolness at the tip of the nose, the rising a falling of the chest. And we watched our minds wander to stories of this and that. We called it back, like a dog run off in a thunder storm, reminding ourselves in that moment, we were back in the present moment, something to congratulate ourselves for instead of grumbling about how we had been off somewhere. We noticed our feet on the floor, our seats on the chair. The body with it's sensations and aches and pains, it's flutterings and itches, was constantly calling us home. We honed our ability to listen to that call. Presence and awareness was being cultivated in each tiny garden of the heart. All our lives we have been cultivating weedy patch of mindless wandering, like wild morning glory.

Howie asked us to zoom in a bit  as we experienced the present moment, to see if we could determine it's feeling tone. Was it pleasant or unpleasant or simply neutral? All moments have one of these feelings associated with them. And if we could do that, could we see what happened in the next split second? If the sensation was unpleasant, did it flip into some form of aversion, of not wanting it, of worrying about it. A woman described this beautifully saying she felt a flutter in her leg, which at first seemed neutral, then even pleasant as she made the association of a butterfly but then the mind went, oh, no what if something's wrong.  And all this in a split second.  We were getting to see the subtle ruminations and movement of the mind, getting to know our personal playlist. We got to see the connection between our experience and the mind state that arose. And Howie asked us the question, "What  use is this information?"
tiny bowl, charcoal and acrylic 6"x6"

Turns out we can use it to interrupt our habitual or "mindless" response to our experience. I have a choice about whether I want to go down the rabbit hole of worry when I feel a flutter in my leg, but only if I am aware of that little chain of events. If it just "happens" without my awareness I am doomed to suffer as I follow the flight path of wild mind. If I can feel the flutter with awareness and follow the chain of events that transpires I have a choice.

And it wasn't that we learned to calm our restless minds on the spot, so that they would never be restless again. It was about learning the process, the same way you might learn a yoga posture that you can practice at home. The more you do it, the more the subtleties of the posture open up to you. The more you practice, the better your form becomes, the stronger your muscles become. And so it is with mindfulness. We are practicing, training the unruly, restless mind. Just as we get to know how our particular body responds to and works with physical exercise, so we get to know the peculiarities of this mind that we inhabit in this lifetime. We get to see we have choices and that we can choose to simply experience this moment and be released from the ruminations of the restless mind. Freedom lies in the next simple breath.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Living In The Insane Asylum

I recently had the pleasure to spend a few days at Birken Forest  Monastery. The monastery is tucked away in BC's high ranch land, not somewhere you'd necessarily expect to find a Buddhist monastery. But hey, Buddhism is about working with our expectations, right, so might as well start from the get-go?

As we headed up the road toward Birken we gorged on the sight of velvety green hills ( we'd already gorged on lunch to fortify ourselves for the "no food past noon rule" at Theravaden monasteries.  The temperature in the car registered 97 degrees and the wind from the open window tossed my hair about as we turned on to the gravelly, potholed part of the road for the last bit of the drive.

The weekend was steeped in silence and 5:15 wake-up bells , the whistles of marmots and the wind rattling in the poplar leaves. There is something about the way monastics hold a space. Somehow it manages to be filled with a wordless generosity and peace, both grounded and groundless, if that makes any sense.
marmots making themselves at home at Birken

I had the occasion to ask about one of my pet topics (which has been getting a bit of work out lately due to household circumstances): anger. And as all good lay people, I wanted a recipe to dispel my anger, something simple and instant and fool proof (what else would a fool want but something fool proof?) I have heard Ajahn Sona speak before and his answers always surprise me (which I love) and he did not disappoint.

"Just think of the world as an insane asylum," he suggested. "People are always doing crazy things, unskillful things all the time. You never know what they are going to do. Think of yourself as a psychiatric nurse in the insane asylum. You are never surprised because anybody might do anything at anytime."

Now we are going to think of the world as an insane asylum in the nicest of ways, right? We're not going to use this idea to make ourselves more jaundiced or jaded. Goodness knows we don't need that! We're going to use it to make ourselves more agile and skillful. We're going to use this to hone our skills of "anything can happen at anytime." We are always standing on the edge of the unknown, it's just that we're constantly forgetting that we're on the edge of this precipice.

Instead of getting angry when someone doesn't keep their word, when they do something rude or inconsiderate, we simply nod and go "yep that's what it's like in the asylum." We have compassion for the inmates of this world (and we are one of them) and some days we're the craziest one in the asylum. Sometimes the inmates' delusion or greed or hatred (just like us) gets the best of them and they do crazy stuff.

Ajahn Sona suggested doing a "surprise meditation" each morning where we take a few minutes to remind ourselves that we live in a place where anything can happen at any time. This helps us remember when the person that promised to help us, has forgotten or changed his mind, when someone cuts us off in traffic, when any number of crazy making things happens.

I realized later, rather than discussing the afflictive emotion of anger, Ajahn Sona had chosen to focus on "right view". He didn't need to advise me on the specifics of working with anger. He simply reminded me that if "we see things as they are" we won't have unrealistic expectations, we won't be disappointed when our desires are not met. The view of ourselves as the centre of the universe may actually weaken and we will feel freer, less tossed about and buffeted by the circumstances of life.
Buddha in the marsh

As I have started working at my job in the asylum  I can see how much "ego" I need to let go of to hold this view, how strong my craving to be right is. The stories of my righteous indignation seem much thinner and  more wobbly, like a spinning top, slowing down.  In the insane asylum, crazy stuff happens.  That's all I need to know, really. It's that simple.

As a post script, that doesn't mean I never take action. Sometimes the craziness requires some skillful intervention. It just means I don't need to get mad about it. I may live in the insane asylum but I don't need to make it the Cuckoo's nest.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Wise Effort

Zendotstudio Buddhas at Rawsome Cafe & Juice Bar 
I am thinking about "wise effort". It is  in my mind after listening to a great dharma talk last night by Andrea Fella that you can find here. It is true you can make all kinds of effort but not all of it is wise. I know a bit about this myself. My repetoire of "effort sans wisdom" includes effort fueled by force, effort soaked in wanting things to turn out a certain way, and effort that floats on the marshmallow of delusion. Perhaps you have your own special flavour of effort?

Four of us have been hard at work around "the farm" this last several weeks so I have had occasion to see different kinds of effort in action. Lots of work has taken place. Some very dirty cedar siding had been washed, many weeds have been pulled, dirt has been moved, logs have been bucked, meadows have been mowed. I myself have been guilty of over- effort, the kind where you unwisely use up all your energy and are reduced to an aching heap.  I have witnessed grim effort, where not much fun happens on the job. There have been half efforts and unfocused effort. I have also witnessed bright effort that flowed with enthusiasm and effort meant in part to be an example to encourage others. I never knew there were so many nuances to effort.

In her talk Fella reminds us that wise effort is intertwined with mindfulness and concentration. If we are mindful our effort will be bright and considerate of the task at hand. Concentration supports an effort that is strong and focused.  When I think of effort I am often reminded of Jeane's tag line over at ART IT, "you must make an effort to put things into motion".  These words have echoed in my ears from the first time I read them. Simple, direct and true.  Jeane is an inspiring example of wise effort.  She works consistently. Perhaps this is one of the most important and difficult aspects of effort, this ability to unflinchingly sustain effort.   And I have been awed by the integrity of her effort. This woman has painted over or burned work I would gladly have hung on my wall! And her new work is an exciting testimony to effort she nourishes on good humour, faith and confidence.
Chris Gay half of the duo that owns Rawsome Cafe
Some of my art is currently hanging in a place built on wise effort. I have watched Jim Maurice & Chris Gay steer their business and follow their dreams to arrive at the awesome Rawsome Living Foods Cafe & Juice Bar. They create raw food with integrity and mindfulness, works of edible art and deliciousness. If you are in the neighbourhood drop in and try one of their many goodies. I recommend the raw bagels and cream cheese and the Village Greens juice. And never leave without dessert!

Buddhas watch over cafe customer

Summer seems the season of energy, filled with sun and light and warmth. So what better season to consider our use of effort, to re-dedicate ourselves to something that is important in our lives? Where will you shine the light of your wise effort this summer?
Juicy Art?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Veil of Fog

16"x16" cold wax, ash, milk paint powder 

This morning the landscape is hugged by a deep, white fog. The trees and barn that usually greet me have slipped into shadowy outlines as if I have grown thick cataracts on my eyes overnight. A curtain of white has been drawn softly across the distant view.  I hear the Skeena Queen's passage traced by her fog horn receding through the thick air at methodical intervals.

My mind is like this fog much of the time, thick with thoughts and opinions. The filter of belief through which I peer often allows me to only see the shadowy outline of people, of situations, of things. I know this to be true for several reasons. Sometimes I bump into something in the fog of self that pierces me in a way that wakes me up. Suffering is like that, it wakes you up. Brushing off my hurt, I see how the self protective fog I've pulled around me has prevented from seeing things as they are.

Retreats can be fog melters.  There can often be a brightness, a clarity to everything after a period of prolonged practice.  The sitting, the slowing down, somehow melts the fog, a de-fogging solution for the window of the heart/mind.  There can be a brilliance and beauty to the simplest object, a sharpness to sounds and a wider net of acceptance cast over everything. And then as the days pass I slip back into the fog like the Skeena Queen, methodically sounding the old horn.

20"x20" cold wax, ash, dirt, milk paint powder

And sometimes for reasons unknown, the veil can lift. I know you too, have seen this fogless landscape. I might be standing at the sink washing dishes or working in the garden and the view out becomes brilliant. Maybe I am gobsmacked by the brilliant fierceness of a tiny hummingbird or the spiny armour of a pill bug. Maybe an insight into some difficult situation pops into view. The prevailing fog lifts for a minute or an hour and I  see fog free.

On the art front I spent a decidedly fog-free afternoon with Jeane from ART IT and her special guest Rebecca Crowell on Wednesday's ustream broadcast from the shed. I have been exploring a little jar of cold wax that I've had for ages to my sheer delight, mixing it with wood ash and plaster of paris and some white milk paint powder. Cold wax doesn't mix with acrylic paint or watery things so I have been rustling up whatever things I can find and having so much fun!

I am also looking forward to exploring some natural pigments and perhaps finding a less toxic version of cold wax. Leslie Avon Miller in this post reminded me of the toxic nature of many art materials including the acrylics I use all the time and though the look of cold wax calls to me, the smell tells the tail of toxic mineral spirits. I am so careful in my home about cleaning products and paint and food and gardening and yet I am drowning in toxic art materials. Another example of fog.

Wishing you a happy fog-free weekend.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


8"x10" Vancouver Morning
I woke up this morning to the sound of rain crinkling.  Instead of being instantly dismayed I simply listened to the sound of water falling from the sky. I did not flavour it with the sweet taste of goodness or the bitterness of bad.  It sounded like someone gently crinkling paper, that's all, a simple sound. This could be the year the west coast invents a whole dictionary of rain. The Inuit purportedly have many words for snow, not just one. So it could be sogging out there right now or damping this afternoon.  And of course it was crinkling this morning. Apparently the number one topic for polite conversation in Canada is the weather, so there's been lots of chit chat about the rainy cool, greyness here. At least one local has decided to make a personal appeal to the sun by dancing. Some have taken to calling this month Juneuary.

Archipelago of the Heart 12"x24"

But the word that the rain whispered to me this morning was "washed". It wasn't oh #!%* it's raining again (seems I've caught punctuation mouth from my daughter).  It reminded me of a blog post I read at Mystic Meandering recently. Sometimes when we find ourselves repeatedly in difficult situations, there is a thing that happens inside.  Sometimes we can get so bombarded by life that the whining and wanting drops away. If you've ever been besieged by a series of difficult circumstances, especially big ones, it's like our ground gets "washed" away. We can become someone we hardly know as we enter a "groundless" space. We stop bargaining and hoping and just do what needs to be done. We might feel like we are drowning, we might feel like we're not handling it very well or we might not think about it at all. A little bit of self has been washed away, maybe momentarily, maybe forever. RM Jiyu Kennett from the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives used to say something like "the karmic washing is excruciating but the bathing is exquisite." I may be way off on the quote but I think she was speaking to how difficulties can "wash" away things like hopes and fears and leave us with an equanimity, an acceptance of what is. In a small way all this "weather" has washed away a little bit of the sun whiner in me (at least for now).
20"x24" On the easel

So if we are lucky life will offer us a "washing" every now and then. And perhaps if we take small washings on a regular basis, the bigger washings won't scrub us so raw when they arrive. Because, inevitably a little or a lot of rain is going to fall on us all some day. May your "washing" be gentle and come with earth friendly, non toxic ingredients.

I will end with a bit from my current read, "Gardening At Dragon's Gate by Wendy Johnson: "Three-quarters of the body of the earth is covered by water, alive and circulating, while our own bodies are at least 60 percent water. "Chemically speaking" runs a passage from the 1846 Farmers' Almanac, " a human being is 45 pounds of carbon diffused through 5 1/2 pails of water." From the depths of our cells, in the moisture of blood and sweat, tears and saliva, water speaks to water."