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.