Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Zen of Right Effort

This afternoon I went to my 3 1/2 hour Qi gong class.  A big part of this practice is a meditation where you find your chi (as if you might have misplaced it somewhere. Excuse me sir, that's my chi you're sitting on.)  

The first place in the body where you are directed to focus  is at the middle dan tien, 2 finger widths below the breast bone.  After a few days if you are diligent and fortunate you may have a sense that the chi has made the short trip to the lower dan tien (or hara) just below the navel.  Then the chi's itinerary is to move down and around the back, unblocking the channels, and finally going up to the top of the head, and purchasing a round trip ticket back to the middle dan tien (never once complaining about missing a seat sale).  When this happens you have cleared the 3 major blockages in the body (lower back, mid back and back of the neck) and the chi  stops for a little celebration party in your head and then flows freely through all the channels.  This takes varying amounts of time for people depending on their level of health and commitment to the practice. 

Our trusty master always goes around the circle of students checking how our chi is and where our chi is (fine thanks for asking).  We have some advanced students in the class who have unblocked all their channels and apparently chi dances freely in their heads.  The rest of us are quite curious about this.  Our instructor encourages us to sit longer saying" it's like a putting a pot of water on to boil, if you keep taking it off the heat it will never boil."  It is a good analogy, all of us little luke warm pots, never quite turning the heat of effort and commitment up high enough.   Even though our master is a Taoist he is expressing one of the aspects of the Buddhist eightfold path, right effort.

As he makes his way around the circle a lot of people find they are too busy to do their meditation every day and he looks at them with clear eyes and tells them the times is there, that he used to work 10 hours a day at two jobs and still found time for meditation.  Rumour has it that this graceful, dignified little man used to work as a janitor at the University. 

As suggested I do my meditation diligently, twice a day, 30 minutes each time but I know those sittings are not quite enough.  I feel enthused when I hear him talk of the benefits of practice but I need to do more than feel excited about the idea once a week.   What am I doing, what are my classmates doing that prevent us from finding enough time for this valuable practice?  

I can only answer for me, but it seems that time somehow slips through my fingers.  I feel like there are not enough waking hours but in truth if I look, I squander my time as if I were going to live forever.  I have heard it said that the problem is we don't fully understand "impermanence".  If each day I reminded myself that my time here is finite and it's length unknown I might regard each moment as more precious. I might squander less. It's like water, pouring freely from the tap, we watch it wash down the drain without thought.  We need to live in the arid flats of time, our minds fully attentive to how we measure out the drops of our lives.

As it is I waste my valuable life energy zinging around on the internet, sitting in front of the television, doing goodness knows what.  It's not that I'm bad or stupid.  I'm just a little unconscious.  I need to wake up from my groggy half life. It's not a matter of becoming my own personal arm banded time police but just being more mindful, making more conscious choices.  I'm not talking about sucking the pleasure out of my day but just being aware of my intentions and priorities and making my choices from that place, choosing not to squander.  Maybe  it's about getting up an hour earlier.  Maybe it's about getting down to work when it's time, instead of doing this and that.

I have heard this topic on the lips of others this week. " I need more exercise.  I need more fresh air.  I don't want to sit so long at the computer."  (Me to myself: I need to paint more.) It seems a common problem, getting to those things we say we want to do, changing our behaviour to more wholesome states but with a little awareness, conscious intention and the grasping of our will, anything is possible.  I will end with a quote by PT Sudo, "Do not feel overwhelmed by the length of this journey.  All you ever need do is focus on one thing, what you are doing.  Stay on the path and put one foot in front of the other---- that is all.  There is joy in the struggle."

Friday, February 27, 2009

Enlarging The Universe

I'm thinking about creativity today because I was really inspired this morning when I looked around my cyber neighbour- hood and found even more people out there doing creative things.  One of my big inspirations for the day came courtesy of Gallery Juana.  She was writing about her washing machine as suggested by Keri Smith (100 Ideas), a virtual tornado of creativity.  I'd seen her name mentioned before but this was the tipping point for me.  I had to go check her out. She has just published the cutest little book called "How To Be An Explorer Of Your Own World"

As I read the excerpted parts she posted on her website I was struck by how Buddhist it seemed and secondly what good common sense advice  (both her advice and Buddhist practice) for living whether you do art or not.  I think we are all artists ultimately (and this is a conclusion Smith draws)  and that we are our own original works of art, always works in progress. How we live our lives becomes our medium, paint, ink, blood, clay.   I've always thought collage was a good little metaphor for how I create myself, drawing a little bit from here and there and assembling it in new and different ways.

Explore, pay attention to detail Smith suggests.  Well there it is, awareness, mindfulness, whatever you want to call it, a primary tenet of Buddhist practice.  This paying attention reminds us how rich life is with delicious details.  "Everything is interesting," she says.  Paying attention serves to pull us away from our lazy habit of sliding over things, getting caught up in the little soap opera going on in our heads.  Gather things, collect bits.   In her list of 100 Ideas she says "draw your dinner" or " illustrate your shopping list".  It's creative, it's fun and it helps direct the mind to paying attention.  We only get to live this life once, we might as well wake up and appreciate it, the sorrows, the joys.

She also suggests we lighten up which in my mind is an important aspect of Zen training.  We often take ourselves and our little lives way too seriously, mooning, moping and worrying about so many little things.  Someone once told me a story of telling their troubles to a Zen master and he just kept saying, "it doesn't matter".  How much stress do we create for ourselves worrying about things that are beyond our control or really "don't matter" when it all gets thrown into the cosmic soup pot.

"Be open to what you don't know"  Smith encourages and this reminds me that we are always standing on the edge of the unknown.  It also reminds me that we have more options than we think, something my Zen teacher likes to point out to students when we feel boxed into a corner.  If we're open we can see possibilities that otherwise remain in the shadows for us.  Sometimes just saying "I don't know" opens up a world of possibilities.  It's humbling too and that is always a good thing.

"Be a detective" Smith urges.  And Buddhism always suggests we examine Buddhist ideas for ourselves.  See if they are true for us, make them our own.  Does attachment really lead to suffering? Explore that in your life and see if it is true for you.  Examine your daily behaviour, do some of your actions lead to suffering?  What might you do differently?  Think about things like right speech.  How do you feel after you say something unpleasant to someone or about someone?  And all the while remembering not to beat yourself up with the answers you get, that's the hard part sometimes.

As I walk out into this creative and interesting evening I feel grateful to be exploring this wonderful creative online world.  So many wonderful inspiring ideas are flying around and filling my head.  I am encouraged to keep that sketch book active and alive and create little bits of experimental art here and there.  I encourage you to open up to your own awesome creative possibilities.

I will let John Daido Loori have the closing words (from "The Zen of Creativity")  "Through our art we bring into existence something that did not previously exist.  We enlarge the universe."

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Zen of Writing Without Words

When I started writing "100 Days of Dharma" at the beginning of January I didn't think about how many words I'd be spilling out on to the page.  It never occurred to me that I'd become conscious of talking too much.  There are many things we can't see when we set out on our travels, namely what lies round the bend.  So here I am thinking about  "right speech", one of the tenets of the eightfold path that leads to the end of suffering.  One of the aspects of right speech is not engaging in idle chatter.  Now I don't think of this as idle chatter, but on many occasions I have thought of it as too many words.  

So then I have my koan, how do I write "100 Days of Dharma" without words?  I could simply say enough words and stop, or write less frequently (which in truth would be much more convenient for me) but I want to complete my 100 Days of Dharma for a variety of reason.  I guess I am curious to see if I can do it.   And it feels like good Dharma practice to go through with it,  good discipline.  When I look inside, the combination of writing and the Dharma have clicked into their little lock position.  And it's a way to build a little writing muscle, weight lifting the alphabet.  

Originally it was my plan to just write in a private journal, you know one with a lovely cover and lined pages.  I think if I'd done that I might not be wondering if it were too many words, but that's speculation at this point.  I ended up in the blogosphere because of an Etsy tip that suggested a blog was a good companion to your shop.  Supposedly I was to write about Etsy related stuff.  Yet the blogging immediately took on a life of it's own that doesn't have a huge amount to do with Etsy other than providing a little welcome mat to the shop.

When I started I thought the blog will make me more committed, less likely to abandon the empty page when the first pang of sloth & torpor hit (sound like a couple of cartoon characters don't they?).   The threat of a little public shaming is apparently effective for me.  But I think the public nature of the writing is also what leads me to ask  " is this too many words?"  Then I have to ask why is this?  Is it my ego, my little self again, primping and straightening in front of the mirror?  Am I simply worried that you will think I'm a blabbermouth, a bag of self inflated hot air, a windbag of tornado proportions, a blathering bombastic Buddha babbler (okay enough already) ?  I think if I am to be truthful there is some of that.

So I am thinking about silence, the fact that we need silence to get to know ourselves, that our true realizations often come when we are sitting silently.  And that in general I know I'd be better off if I listened more and talked less.  And so there is the work for today and always. And so I will end with fewer words than usual perhaps, a fitting ode to silence and right speech and with a quote from Sengstau, the 3rd Zen Patriarch "The more you talk and think about it, the further astray you wander from the truth."  I think I am going to need a very big bag of bread crumbs to get me home, Hansel.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tuning in to the Dharma on TV

It was a cold and wintery night here and we took the opportunity to make some comfort food and snug up in front of ye old telly.  I was reminded that you can find the Dharma anywhere (even on the boob tube!) as we watched a show on the food channel where contestants vie for the title of top chef and a bit of spare change.  I have watched it off and on over the months and tonight was the grande finale.  There was a woman in it who has always appeared graceful and kind.  This is not always the case in the heat of kitchen combat.  

And tonight I saw pure Dharma unfold, and it was a cautionary tale for me.  This woman like all of us has produced some things of great beauty with personality and passion but she has also produced some of the biggest flops on the show.  But somehow she has always managed to regain her composure and shine again.  

So the pressure was on tonight and each contestant got a sous chef to help them cook the best 3 course meal they could.  Their helpers were former contestants.  At one point in the meal preparation, Karla, this delightful chef that I was rooting for, took a suggestion from her helper that altered the preparation of her main course in a big way.  We watched her take this suggestion quickly, as in yeah okay, lets do that.  Later she did it again and in the turn of a spoon changed her final course to a little souffle (not in her original plan) which subsequently flopped and was unservable.

Now the clear Dharma message for me was: we come undone when we don't follow our heart, our intuition, our true self, our inner knowing; however you want to express that.   The judges commented on how "not her" the meat course was and that it was a flop.  And interestingly the souffle that met the bin rather than the judges table was also not her idea.  How often do we do that?  Not trust our instincts, not trust our inner menu plan?  Why did Karla do it?  Was she trying to be accommodating, trying to be liked (a big motivator for many of us), did she truly think Casey's ideas were better, or was she just a little frazzled under all the pressure?

I don't know the answer but I can use this information next time I want to second guess what feels right to d0.  Sometimes it's not easy to stick to your original plan.   It's about faith and trust in ourselves.  Sometimes we get a sense that, maybe I should call so and so, or I think I should pass on this seemingly wonderful job opportunity.  Logic can kick in and tell us that this seems goofy, but somewhere deep inside we have an inner knowing of what is the right thing to do.  It is a skill to simply be aware of those blood and bones feelings.  It can be tricky  to distinguish between those voices vying for attention in our head.  But as we practice we become more acquainted with the true authentic voice of the inner self, sometimes it is just a whisper and sometimes it's a ear splitting shout.  

The second part of the puzzle is to actually have faith and follow through with execution of the plans of the heart.   Karla started out with a plan that was a true expression of Karla but allowed it to be altered and that became her final undoing.   For her it  was a hard way to learn the lesson of  "listen to your deepest self"  but we don't forget those difficult lessons quickly.  Me, I was just an observer  in the 3 ring cooking circus of life but the message seemed clear and instructive.  No matter what's on the menu, make sure that you're reading from that  inner recipe sheet.  Second guessing leads to burnt offerings at best.  And hold the salt, it doesn't go well with wounds.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Zen Flesh, Zen Funny Bones

I'm thinking about humour today.  First someone asked me to write a little bio and in distilling myself down to 10 sentences (which if you read this blog much, you know is an impossible task for me; they were long sentences.)  I realized humour is a big part of who I am.

Go ahead, blame my father for the silliness you find here, he's not around to defend himself.  But because of him our family has a somewhat odd sense of humour.  He had funny names and descriptions for so many things.  As a child he never asked me how school was, he always said "how was Miss Spink today?"  A new dress was a "gown" and any haircut on a woman was referred to as an Ella Cinders cut (apparently an old cartoon character or movies star?) In the end we called it "grandad speak";  his own little language which left the grandkids howling: candies were gundies (a scottish term, I believe), glossette raisins were rabbit drops.  If he asked you to have one foot on the curb, it meant be ready when I pick you up.

While I was checking my flickr site today I  found a group called "Silly Buddha" which has all kinds of amusing pictures of little toy Buddha's posed and garden Buddhas covered to the head in snow and my personal favourite, 2 Buddha statues buckled up in a car ready to go.  Some people may find it offensive to mix images of the Buddha with humour, so if this is you, then don't take yourself out for cocktails to the Silly Buddha site.  All seemed in good taste to my twisted little mind.

And, for whatever reason, I felt a need to bust out of all that serious Zen stuff today; to lighten up.  And lightening up is a real tenet of Zen practice because we can get all serious and heavy about our lives and bore and depress ourselves.  Lightening up is about not taking ourselves so seriously.   I come from the school of  "if you can't laugh about it, you're in trouble."   I'm not talking tasteless or thoughtless here.  Rule number one when shopping at the funny store:  Humour at anyone's expense is always a bad idea.  When you're charging it up on the funny card make sure the bill goes to yourself. 

So I started out on the trail of some Zen funnies for your edification, of course.  It was interesting to hear what people out there had to say about Zen humour.  To start with it is often used to show the foolishness of logic or illustrate some point.  A lot of Zen stories are mildly funny, like the one I told in "Knowing Too Much, Too Soon" where the Zen master over fills the cup of a visiting professor to illustrate that he is too full of knowing.

Sometimes Zen humour takes the form of waking us up by asking us something absurd like the famous "what is the sound of one hand clapping."  Almost everyone has heard this one.  It's purpose, as is the purpose of all koans is to get us out of our heads and take us to a deeper level of understanding.

So now I'll share a couple of Zen jokes that I found out there in the googlesphere  One site that had some fun stuff was Allen Klein's, from Ha Ha to Ah Ah.  This little story is from the Zen master Ikkyu, who as a boy broke his master's tea cup.  Trying to avert trouble (or perhaps avoid a wack with a stick)  the young Ikkyu asked the master, "Why do people have to die?"  To which the master replied, "This is natural.  Everything has to die and has just so long to live."  To that Ikkyu produced the broken cup and said, "it was time for your cup to die."  Woody Allen could hardly have done better.

A poem by Ikkyu also expresses his adult sense of humour:
I'd like to
Offer something
To help you 
But in the Zen School
We don't have a single thing.

And finally as a finale a couple of one liners: " A Zen master once said to me: Do the opposite of what I tell you."  So I didn't.  And go away and think about this one:  "Living your life is a task so difficult it has never been attempted before."

Monday, February 23, 2009

Learning To Be Here Now, Over and Over and Over

Today as I sat in meditation I watched my mind wander.  And I wondered to myself what keeps me from being present, right here, right now in this very moment?  And the answer I came up with is my desire, my clinging, my attachment.  What my mind is most often up to is planning, what needs to be done: a list of would do"s, could do"s, should do's.  And if I look a little deeper these things embody what I want to happen.  I want to paint this, I want to send that email, yada, yada, yada.  Each person's mind has it's own habitual pattern.  Your's might be drawn to the past rather than the future like mine.  Meditation and practice really are all about getting to know yourself.

So in the case of my "little miss busy mind" (at least I'm not a busy body), there's nothing wrong with having plans or making plans but we miss so much if our minds are constantly wandering off on little side trips of their own, instead of taking part in what is happening right now.  If I look a little deeper it's as if I don't trust myself.  My planning is like mom nagging the school kid just before he heads out the door, now don't forget your lunch and your homework and remember not to loose your gym shoes and button your coat at recess, (and 3 more yada's).

And of course there's the deeply ingrained habit of not being present, the neural pathways that  cause me to drive down the same old rutted road of inattention.  It takes effort and awareness and diligence to focus on the present moment and sometimes I am just too lazy.  I love the Buddhist choice of words for this laziness, sloth and torpor, one of the 5 hindrances.  Seems so accurate.  There I am hanging in a tree, just slothing about in an old sweater, with my hair darting off in every direction, kind of half awake.

The other reason we tend to go off in our minds, Buddhism points out, is that we sometimes find the present moment boring.  There is so much more drama in the "he said, she said" of our lives than say, just paying attention to a plate while we wash it, seeing every contour and chip of it's lovely plateness.  But because we never look very deeply we dismiss many things as uninteresting.  This is I think related to the piece I wrote yesterday on knowing too much, too soon.  If you think about the poor little plate, we are not familiar with it because we never pay enough attention to it find it interesting.  Mostly we skim the surface of life,  like dragon flies passing over the pond  looking for mosquitoes. 

So what can I do?  Well here I am aware of the issue.  So step number one taken care of, because if I don't even notice that I'm not here now, I couldn't possibly do anything about it.  There are stories of people who meditate for years and seem not to reap the benefits.  The classic story is one of a monk who spends 25 years in a cave and comes out to be jostled by someone in a line up and push back.  

Once I am aware I need to be willing to do something about it, really willing, at a deep level.  And then I need to set my intention to change my behaviour, whatever that is; in this case be more present when I sit and throughout the day, to not be okay and lazy about wandering mind, to not be okay with sitting on the cushion while my mind goes out for a beer and pizza.  And I need to be patient and kind as I would with a small child, to continually redirecting and persevering. 

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Knowing Too Much, Too Soon

A couple of days ago over at the Humble Yogini's blog she said "The lecture made me realize that I know nothing.  Not in a bad way!  This is a good thing.  And it's an even better thing to be able to admit this because it means there is room for more learning."  It reminded me of the story where the Zen master is pouring tea for a visiting professor who talks continuously.  The master continues to fill the cup to overflowing.  "Stop, the cup is full," shouts the professor.  The master simply nods in agreement.

This got me thinking about "knowing too much, too soon." a comment that comes from some teaching but I'm not sure where.  But  this idea has popped up a couple of times this week, so it's probably time to sit up and pay a little more attention to it.

In his book on creativity, John Daido Loori says, "Once you have located a subject that reflects your feeling, it's important not to rush into the process of expression.  Wait in the presence of the subject until your presence has been acknowledged and you feel that a bond has been created.  Whether its a visual object or a sound, subjects change with time.  They reveal different aspects of themselves if you're able to be patient and allow this revelation to unfold.  On occasion I have sat for hours with a subject, waiting to release the shutter."

When I go into my studio to work I often want to get started, get the paint out and work.  Sometimes I am late and concerned over the fading light or have an alloted time to spend.  Sometimes I am just impatient me. I am not always comfortable with the waiting and trusting that Daido Loori talks about.  Wait an hour, wow, I can't really imagine it. My approach makes me think of  the "knowing too soon", the painting too soon, instead of waiting for the well to fill up or  trusting that the muse will appear.  It reminds me that I am imposing my will and  I see  that I quickly become frustrated with what happens.   The work produced from this place often turns out to be either  tentative or muddy, ready for the bin or in need of serious reworking.  If I can wait, without expectation or need, in that state of not knowing and faith, then I am more likely to find strong brush strokes and confident gestures.  It happens sometimes!  

I remember my teacher saying we are usually not aware of when we're enlightened but it's easy to know when we're not!  I can learn from the paint, from paying attention to the what the bits of paper have to say.  But this requires more restraint on my part, more presence of mind and the willingness to not know, to be able to learn.  I am becoming more and more aware of how important it is to come from this place.  Intention is everything.  "If our first step is false we will immediately stumble"  That's Dogen, and if my memory serves me right it's from the "Rules for Meditation" recited daily in many Soto Zen temples.

I had another example of "knowing too much, too soon" as I chatted with a friend over what she might do to improve her small business that she was worried about.  I threw out a few ideas but they were all met with, "I've done that, I know that."  My first feeling was "how will she ever find a solution if she doesn't want to play with any ideas?"  I could see how I've been in this place myself, one of fear and need and thinking I know.  It closes off so much opportunity, the opportunity to sometimes learn from the wacky, crazy idea, that makes you laugh in it's first incarnation.  It reminds me that the inventor of velcro came up with this idea while looking at "burrs" stuck on his pants after a walk outdoors.  We can learn from everything if we are not too full, if we are empty like the tea cup.

So it's anywhere and everywhere, our impulse to know too much too soon, to be full of knowledge and answers.  And it's becoming my little red light when I see or hear myself doing this, to simply pour out that stale tea and sit with an empty cup.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Etsy, Blogging And Acts of Generosity

I am thinking about generosity today.  It is one of the ten perfections in Buddhism.  My heart was warmed last night as I cruised the internet.  Can you believe that?  I was kinda surprised myself.   Mostly on the internet I expect to find enough information to make my head burst open but I'd never really thought of it as a place to experience generosity.

When I first joined etsy and the blogging world in December, I was bowled over by the creativity that's out there.  Not only was creativity alive and well in this age of mediocrity it seemed boundless.  Maybe the world wasn't go to hell in a hand basket as my mother likes to tell me.

My first experience of  computer generated generosity came from some of the forums on etsy, where people with lots of knowledge about etsy were sharing it freely with "newbies" like me.  Then I found Timothy Adam's websites, including Handmadeology which struck me as both clever and generous.  This guy has built up a wealth of knowledge over the years selling his gorgeous metal art on line and he has websites dedicated to sharing this info and promoting other artists.  Now, sure it helps his sales (this is called 'enlightened self interest' in Buddhism) but it is also an act of generosity.  He doesn't have to do this.  In fact some people might think they were better off if they kept all their hard won knowledge to themselves.  Does Walmart offer free 'How To' tips to the little corner hardware store on how to run it's business?  But  Adam has figured out a  win/win way to do business.  He shares.  People visit his sites.  He makes a living doing what he loves.  We're all wiser and happier.  And a new cooperative paradigm for making a living evolves.

Sylvia Boorstein in her book "Pay Attention, For Goodness" Sake" says this about generosity:  "Generous acts are a relief because they connect. They are always in relationship. They can't be isolating.  And generous acts don't require some thing to give away.  I understand the Buddha's statement "We all have something we could give away" as including in addition to material possessions --companionship, comfort, encouragement and care."

So Adam is offering encouragement and care.  As are the people who have created the "Sneak Attack" on Etsy.  I saw the title on a forum and had to check it out.  What the heck is a sneak attack, I wondered.  Sounds kind of like a swarming.  Well it is, but it's a swarming of generosity!  On the sneak attack website, they post an etsy seller who is new and/ or has low sales and as many people as choose to, go and sneak up on the seller at an appointed time and buy stuff from them.  Now how cool and generous is that.  This is real empathy combined with action ... the will to offer encouragement and support to people you don't even know, who you understand through your own similar experience, are probably feeling a bit down at the mouth.  Another tenet of Buddhism is exhibited here, recognizing that we're all the same.  If I suffer, I can expect that you experience suffering as well.

Then I discovered the "Etsy Stalker" whose byline is "where internet stalking is a good thing".  The esty stalkers find sites that they like and promote them on their website.  This helps visibility, traffic and sales for the "stalked" and gives some profile to the stalkers as well.  Needless to say another creative two headed act of generosity.  There are other people out there on the forums doing similar things and many I'm sure I have yet to discover.

I do find the artists I've encountered on the blogs and etsy a most generous bunch, willing to share artistic tips and knowledge and marketing info.  It's a whole different business and living paradigm. .... creating a kinder more generous business environment.  Like Buddhism that says hey, we're all in this human experience together; I get the same feeling, for the most part from the  handmade movement .   We're all in this together, let's support each other.  Lots of bartering and hearting and generous ratings go on.   

And the final words go to the Buddha:  "Generosity brings happiness at every stage of its expression.  We experience joy in forming the intention to be generous.  We experience joy in the actual act of giving something.  And we experience joy in remembering the fact that we have given."   Pass it on.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Zen Movies, Bears And Popcorn

It's the weekend so I thought I might offer up  a list of  my favourite Buddhist movies.  The Buddha's Oscars maybe?  And of course that would mean this little bear is sitting in a bowl of popcorn.  Remember the episode of Seinfeld years ago where someone eats a chocolate bar with a knife and fork.  Well this little Ursus is eating his popcorn with a spoon.  How sophisticated!  It's hard to get that buttery goodness off your paws!

Enough foolishness for now, at least.  One of my all time favourite movies is "Words of My Perfect Teacher" made by Canadian film maker Lesley Ann Patten.  She made the movie about her slightly eccentric  beer drinking, soccer loving, Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Dzongsar Khyentse Norbu who incidentally made another of my favourite Buddhist movies, called "The Cup" about a young soccer loving monk.  (I think there's some autobiography in this movie!)  It's charming and delightful.  One thing that blew me away is that Khyentse Norbu had never made a movie before but acted as the "Buddhist" consultant to Bertolucci on the movie, "The Little Buddha" (also a good watch).  Just hanging around the set and watching, he figured out how to make his own movie!  Khyentse Norbu also made a movie called "Travelers and Magicians" more recently and while it is a bit long and windy, it is still worth the watch.

Another one of my favourites is "I heart Huckabees".  Although Buddhism is never mentioned in the film, it really is all about aspects of the Dharma and Buddhist practice, tucked in there by the Buddhist film maker, David O Russell.  To boot it stars Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman, Isabelle Hupert, and Jason Schwartzman.  I don't generally watch a movie more than once, but this is one I have, and own!

I loved "How to Cook Your Life" with Ed Espe Brown, of Tassajara cookbook and bread book fame.  It's about a Zen and bread baking retreat he leads.  Several people I knew ran home and baked bread the day after they saw this movie.  It's a tasty treat.  Brown is at his best when he sheds a tear over a little cast iron tea pot.  You will want pizza after you see this movie if nothing else!

A truly heart wrenching movie is "What Remains of Us" made by a Tibetan woman, Kalsang Dolma who lives in Montreal.  She smuggled a video recorder with a message from the Dalai Lama into Tibet and filmed the responses of Tibetans, some of them who have never actually seen the Dalai Lama.  It's wonderful and sad all at the same time.  Don't see this when you're looking for light entertainment.

"Milarepa" is  the story of the Tibetan poet and sage  of the same name and is only the first half of Milarepa's life.  Part two is in the works.  It's filled with intrigue and beautiful scenery.   This is well worth seeing, ends as a cliff hanger, but with tons of dharma yet to come.

Other honorable mentions are "Ten Questions for the Dalai Lama" made by Rick Ray.  It is always good to see the Dalai Lama so it's worth the watch and the title kind of says it all.  Also, we saw an unusual little flick called "Zen Noir".  It kind of follows an old detective story theme and is a little odd, but we enjoyed it well enough.  I heard a rumour that a couple of monks found it a bit off colour.  Of course, this intrigued me, and made me really want to see this movie. 

"Call It Karma" made by Vancouverite, Geoff Brown, is the story of Gyalten Rinpoche's  1,000 mile trek and pilgrimage and definitely worth a look.    And the last one I'll mention is called "Enlightenment Guaranteed".  It's a German movie about 2 brothers who go to a Zen monastery in Japan.  One brother loves the idea of Zen and the other brother tags along after being dumped by his wife.  It's a strange little ditty, amusing in some spots.  My daughter watched it with me and her comment was "it looks like someone made it on a super8 camera" so be prepared for it's home movie look, but the dharma is tucked in there.

So get out the corn popper and enjoy!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

We Are Artists Of Our Own Lives

I woke up this morning with a line in my head that goes, "Sometimes I have breakfast with Mara and I use a long spoon."  I love this line.  It conjures this fabulous picture in my mind of a large bowl and the diner with an extremely long handled spoon gingerly dipping it, while suspiciously eyeing  Mara (the emanation of darkness and temptress of the passions who tested Buddha on the night of his enlightenment) from across the bowl.  The quote belongs to RM Jiyu Kennett, founder of the Soto Zen Order of Buddhist Contemplatives.

What I understand of this quote is that sometimes old karma arises and we have senses or feelings that come to us that leave us scratching our head.  What's that all about, where did that come from. .... especially  if you wake up with some unexplainable feelings that linger, as in the breakfast with Mara scenario.  The practice is of course not to indulge these feelings, nor suppress them. ... easier said than done, but that is the razor's edge we aim for.

One of the interesting things I have heard about karma is that once you stop creating new karma, (by our unskillful actions) old karma can then come up to be cleansed.  As The Humble Yogini mentioned yesterday in a comment on my post,  "Cracked Pots, Mustard Seeds And Suffering", that is one of our functions here on this earthly realm, to cleanse karma.  If you find that a bit far fetched you can always do what my teacher suggests, and put it on the back burner for now.

This morning Mara visited me more as a physical sensation, a slightly churning stomach.  And as I resisted the urge to go with the old "I'm sick" story I could feel the turning.  I could feel strangely cheerful and yet not completely physically well.  I could see the fruits of my training, as it is sometimes called.  I have been a glass half empty kinda gal for most of my life.  My understanding is that's partly karmic package and partly the inclination for all human beings according to brain researcher, Rick Hanson of  But this morning I could see the turning, a feeling that I don't have to do things this way any more.  I can choose to look up instead of down.  It was a blood and bones sensing, not just an understanding it in my head kind of thing.  

And then in this optimistic (egads, Batman!) kind of way I could see some of the other fruits of my training laid out before me like a little tropical feast: my improved relationship with my mother, my partner and daughter, from a willingness to do the necessary work.  A lot of contemplation and courage to say the hard thing  (always in the most helpful way possible and not coming from anger) went into this.  I could see how working with anger (I talk about this in my post "the doorway in") has changed how I relate to the world in general.  And the practice of letting go has helped me see how much of what we cling to is, in the grand scheme, not particularly important.  And the work is on going; as someone once pointed out that's why they call it practice.  We are continually working away on it, refining our lives, like cooks, like alchemists, like artists of our own lives.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Zen And The Art of Creating

I am thinking about the artistic process this evening.  Partly because I spent a somewhat frustrating afternoon in the studio.  I'm doing a postmortem, in the hope of saving myself a toe tag tomorrow.  So the question is who died, what was the cause of death and what are the recommendations for improving studio security?  Okay , so who appointed me coroner?

I went in to work feeling reasonably grounded and peaceful.  It was a beautiful sunny afternoon.  I had no other obligations.  I was looking forward to this.   But somehow I got all wound up in wanting things to turn out beautiful and wanting it to be easy and I lost my way.  As the afternoon light waned  I never did find my way home.  (This is my police statement if they come looking for me.)

I have found over the years that mostly I work in a way best described by Malcolm Gladwell in a fabulous article he wrote for the New Yorker, called  "Late Bloomers".  I seldom start with a  a plan.  I apply some paint and see where it goes. Maybe take it off if I don't like it.  There is nothing exacting about my process.  I don't envision the painting and then execute, which is apparently how "early bloomers" work.  Us late bloomers are more process oriented, haphazard and experimental. 

The little Buddha painting shown here is one of a threesome I did several years ago.  It was in doing these paintings I first became aware of "my process" and  how it reflected the Dharma.   I could see my  attachment to the results as I worked on this little group.  I kept looking at each painting in a value oriented kind of way.  Did I like it, was it going well, was it turning out how I wanted it to?  It was subtle and underground and took place in the blink of an eye but it was all going on below the surface.  There it was the suffering which existed in the space between how things were and how I wanted them to be (the second noble truth).   Not only did I want things my way, I assumed I was in control.

At some point in the process I deemed these paintings beyond help.  This released them (poor little guffers) from having to meet my expectations and me from having to be in control.   Finally I could have some fun.  I used sandpaper and steel wool.  On one of the paintings I turned my frustration into black paint.  What at one point seemed ready for the garbage in the end was quite pleasing. .... after my little self gave up all its judging and wanting and fight for control.  In the Gladwell article he refers to a famous painter (I forget who it was) who used to fling his paintings out the windows and people would find them in trees.  Ah, a man after my own heart.  My only saving grace is that I hate to part with a canvas.   I have learned that frustration is sometimes part of the process.  Sometimes I just need to be there with it as a friendly companion.  Welcome to the studio, frustration.  Stuffy in here?   Shall I open a window for  you?

And there are some days when I can come in and just be there with the canvas and wait for the paint or bits of paper to lead the way.  And some magic happens.  Hours go by.  And there is an unconscious doing that comes from deep inside. The mind is quiet.

And it is interesting that the best work sometimes comes from the process that involves going through the frustration and suffering to the letting go.  And there are days like today where I never get to the "letting go" point for one reason or another.

But it is all good Dharma.  It is all just like the rest of life.  If I work with it long enough I get more skillful at seeing what I'm up to.  Where am I clinging?  When do I think I'm in control?  

In one of my favourite books on the creative process, "The Zen of Creativity" by  John Daido Loori, he says: "If I was asked to get rid of the Zen aesthetic and just keep one quality necessary to create art, I would say it's trust.  When you learn to trust yourself implicitly, you no longer need to prove something through your art.  You simply allow it to come out, to be as it is.  This is when creating art becomes effortless.  It happens just as you grow your hair.  It grows." 

Ah, Daido Loori has just helped put the finishing touches on my post mortem.  Really in the end it's about trust, how much do we trust, how completely are we willing to give ourselves over and believe that everything is in it's right place and things are always unfolding as they should.  Quiet the busy mind and trust.  We don't need to be checking on it, weighing and measuring, fretting and doubting.  We just need to get on with what needs to be done and remember to use a really good shampoo.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Cracked Pots, Mustard Seeds And Suffering

I don't know if I can make this come together into a post that makes any sense tonight but I'm going to give it a try.  I am reminded to be careful what you promise: as in some hair brained scheme that you cook up on the beach where you decide  that you are going to write a blog post everyday for a hundred days.  I'm so far into it now, that the stubborn red headed part of me won't let it go.  

And that slides quite nicely into one of the things that came up on my radar today.   I got one of those emails from a friend about "the cracked pot".  You've undoubtedly seen it before. .... the story of the woman who carries 2 water jugs home from the well everyday.  One of the pots is cracked and dribbles out water that leaves a trail of flowers in it's path.  So there it is, what at first glance appears to be  a flaw turns out to be an asset.  It's a lovely sentiment  with lots of truth in it.  (The flip side of stubbornness is tenacity. See I'm not giving up on this one!) 

The story is a call to look deeper, past conventional easy logic.  It reminds us that things are not always as they seem.  And the story wakes us up to the complexity of life, to the delicious, messy mix of opposites.  We move from cave man logic ... whole pot good, cracked pot bad  to a more holistic way of understanding our world.

 There's the Leonard Cohen lyrics: "there's a crack in everything, that's where the light gets in", which expresses a similar thought to the cracked pot story, albeit a little more elegantly.  It  is one of those ideas that goes against conventional thinking, that goes against our desire to have light without dark, happiness without sadness.  It reminds us that the sanitized, Disneyfied view of the world is unreal and lacks depth and character. It's that advert mentality where everyone is wearing new clothes and no one has wrinkles (in their clothes or elsewhere).  

Over at the Humble Yogini's blog her inspiring post for today got me thinking about a related topic. ....why I have trouble with some of the "new agey" kinds of spirituality.  There are a couple of reasons and one is that they only want to talk about joy and happiness and gratitude .... ( no cracks please!).  Not that any of those things are bad, don't get me wrong.  We all want to go there sometimes but the reality is that life would be fairly flat if that was the only tire we were riding on.  And besides it doesn't really reflect reality.  

As the first tenet of Buddhism points out.  There is suffering.  It is just a fact of life and if you don't accept that you are living in denial (and no that is not a river in Egypt, okay cheap joke but I couldn't resist).  There is a wonderful story where a woman comes to the Buddha lamenting the death of her child.  He tells her he will bring her child back to life if she can bring him a mustard seed from a house where they have not known death.  The woman travels around the countryside and of course returns without the seed, wiser for her journey  and connected to all those who like her, have lost loved ones. 

 So suffering is. .... pure and simple.  It just is and I suspect you know that too.  Sometimes when I sing my little Buddhist song, people tell me they don't like Buddhism because it is so negative.  "It's all about suffering," my neighbour says.  No I say, it's about the path to the end of suffering.  There are two kinds of suffering actually.  Suffering that leads to more suffering and suffering that leads to the end of suffering.  Does that make any sense?  The suffering that leads to more suffering is when we are oblivious to what we are doing and leave shards of suffering behind us.  But when we use our suffering to wake up, then it leads to the end of suffering.  I was amazed when I first heard the idea of the compassionate side of suffering,  .... the concept that suffering is helpful because it  shows us what doesn't work, it softens us up, wakes us up, makes us more compassionate.  It causes us to change our course.  So you can drink too much or shout at your spouse or kick the cat and that can either lead to more suffering or the end of suffering.  Choice is ours.  Pretty cool, huh?  That Buddha was one smart guy.

Both the post at the Humble Yogini's and a newsletter I received from a woman who runs seminars and does coaching called 'Barefoot Journeys' reminded me of the other reason that some of the new age things like "The Secret" and others in this genre seem a bit off.  They take spiritual concepts and encourage us to use them "to get what we want", stuff, success, you name it they tell you, you can get it.  Hhmm.  We're back to grasping and clinging and looking outside ourselves for our satisfaction.  They encourage us to believe we're in control of this little movie called our lives, that we are the director, producer and actors and we get to throw an ill-willed little tantrum when things don't go our way.  "Where is my double grande non fat latte on a leash?"  We are dissappointed or worse when things don't go as planned, when our spouse leaves us, or we loose our job or get cancer.  We didn't order that.  But guess what?  We don't run the order desk and it'd probably be pretty boring if we did.  .... same old, same old.

Sometimes it takes a little adversity for us to really dig deep.  If you've read this blog before you've seen me joke, that I don't go there unless I'm dragged kicking and screaming and those have been some of the richest events of my life.  And so if, you've suffered through my ramblings until the end, you have learned that suffering does end.  And it's here and now, (for now).

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Mad Witch of Zen

There are many things I know in my head that I don't know yet in my heart. What I need to understand hasn't made the long journey, as the quote credited to Chief Seattle goes ("The longest journey we'll ever take is from the head to the heart.") Today I woke up with a sore throat.  For most people this isn't a welcome thing but you get up, get on with your day.  Maybe grumble a bit.  Today I did get up and get on with my day but for me being sick is a serious bummer.  You think I'd be used to it by now.  You think I'd accept it.  But I can't quite do this.  I don't want it.  I don't like it and I push it away.  For me a sore throat is not just a sore throat.  For some time I have realized that I have built a story around illness.  No, that's not quite it. .... I have built a giant arm wrenching novel around it.  It's set somewhere dark and nasty, filled with lots of sinister and sad characters where I imagine (unlike Hemingway) that the sun never rises.

We all tell ourselves stories.  What else is the ego but an amassing of stories really, about how we are, why we are that way, and how things should really be.  We create ourselves with our stories.  We are walking illusions.  Some of the stories we tell ourselves are helpful.  Things like "I'm good at this" or "I always bounce back".  Mostly if we look carefully we  have some good stories.  On the good days they're easier to find in the mental library.  

But today I pulled out the well worn volume called "oh no, I'm sick again.  I'm always sick.  Every time I turn around I'm sick.  Will I ever be well?"  Sounds like a bad, cry in your beer, country and western sound track.  And  logically I know this is a most unhelpful story, and yet....  I have told it to myself off and on since I had chronic fatigue syndrome 2o years ago so it is a comfortable old story with a leather cover and a silk tassel book mark.  It is not an enjoyable story but easy reading, second nature.

So what does it take to redraft that story? There are a variety of skills that go into this I think, applied at various times, in various combinations, in a kind of trial and error, let's experiment kind of way.  Ah, let's get out the Bunson Burner, remember that cute little accessory from high school chemistry.  We know the object of this little experiment. It would be "Drop the story. " ... And the apparatus, well I guess that would be me and mind and my heart and my blood and bones. 

 And then there's the method.  (Remember the layout of that little science report?)  So first I am aware that I am telling a story.  Or am I?  Well,truthfully sometimes I am past the first chapter, well into the moping, before I even realize I am telling the story.  So I need to be vigilant and pay attention to the oncoming story .... so I can be prepared when it's sitting at the check-out desk waiting for me.  Then I need to "grasp the will" as my Zen teacher calls it, which I find pretty hard when I feel crummy.  The draw to feel sad and bad and wallow is pretty strong.  The inclination to wrong view "everyone else is healthy and out there having a wonderful time." is pretty enticing.  That's how it seems but in addition to being untrue it feeds the wallow mentality.  

And then there is patience, ah good ol' grounded, steady patience.  Long standing, karmic patterns need time.  The work needs to be done over and over.  Change doesn't  happen NOW, just because I want it to.  Ah, big lesson. Patience, patience and more patience.  And how about some compassion for the confused little self.  The self that blames itself for being sick, feels a failure for being sick.  And then how about letting go, that famous Zen ingredient, so rarified and special, invisible and ethereal. ...... so simple and direct, the knife to slice through it all. ....Just let go of the story.  If only for a moment.  And then another.  .... And then one day ....poof, inexplicably it's gone for good.

So while I take my vitamin C and do my qi gong  I will also put all the above ingredients in a little flask on the Bunson Burner and patiently await the alchemical reaction, all the while stirring like a mad witch.  I will ask for help and say a little prayer and try not to remember that my chemistry teacher told me that "three moons were going to rise in the sky if I passed chemistry."  I still fondly remember Mr Martin.  He sounded a lot like WC Fields.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Dharma and Promises

The quote on this mixed media piece says "When tea is made with water drawn for the depth of mind we really have what is called tea ceremony."  What a wonderful way to describe mindfulness.  And I am glad  I painted this teapot as after having it for about 25 years I dropped it on the floor one day and it broke in pieces.  So the teapot lives on hanging on the kitchen wall by the sink.  But I don't really want to talk about teapots or kitchen accidents.  But mindfulness enters into the story I am about to tell.

Right now I am thinking about an email I have to write, an email I needed to sit with and think about.  Firing off a reply can be so tempting and easy.  It may feel good to get something off our proverbial chests especially if we feel an emotion like anger or have a strong opinion to share, but it is often also a mistake.  So I have learned to wait where my previous self would have leaped into a vat of hot boiling karma.

About 8 months ago we took a cat into our home as a long term cat sit for a young woman who was going off to do a retreat in a monastery.  I was looking for a kitten at the time but thought, you know, I could do someone a favour, someone having trouble finding a place for an 8 yr old kitty to stay, and I could help someone pursue the Dharma and then get my kitten later.  Seemed reasonable to me.  So Bunny the loaner cat came to live with us.  

I was very clear with Bunny's owner that I did not want to find myself left with this 8 yr old cat, that this was temporary.  The lovely young owner of Bunny seemed to understand this and seemed to me like a keeper of promises.  Can you see where this is going?  Bunny was to be retrieved in 6 months.  This was later lengthened to 9 months.  I have now received an email that asks if I have fallen sufficiently in love with Bunny to keep her.  Failing that, my young friend has offered to find a new home for her from afar.  Her plans have changed and she has decided to pursue studies in another city.

So I am left in an interesting position.  In truth I have not fallen in love with Bunny.  At 8 years old she has some habits that don't endear her to me.  She has some charming habits too, but well, I liked the original plan, that I would do my favour and the cat would return to former owner.  It has been interesting for me  to examine this in terms of the Dharma.  Somehow I was under the assumption that I was protected from ending up where I am now by being clear and direct about my wants and needs.  But I forgot that we are always standing on the edge of the unknown.  I don't think my young friend intended this either.  I had expectations about how the situation would play out and now I can see that things don't always turn out as expected.  As we learn from studying the Dharma, we are not in control.  

I recently found myself in a situation described in an earlier blog post (Accidental Dharma) that while vastly different, had the same distinct flavour as the cat incident.  (Dissappointingly to the cat, tuna was not the flavour.) The driver of a car who gave me a little bang in the door initially declared fault, but later changed her mind.  The seeming similarity  in these two situations was that I thought things would unfold as originally agreed upon.  If the driver said she was at fault in the morning, I expected she would see it the same way in the afternoon.  If Bunny's owner assured me that I would not be left permanently with her cat I expected that would be the final outcome of my extended cat sit. I was left scratching my head in both situations.  

How did I end up here, what did I do wrong?  And if I calculated my conclusion in one way, the old way, I could feel bitter and twisted and say, "you just can't trust people."  But that would be wrong view, wrong understanding in Buddhism.  The truth is things change (the law of impermanence) and we can not protect ourselves from this by being clear or direct.  It is important to be clear and direct but it has been an interesting lesson for me that clarity and directness are not any form of protection.  We swim in a sea of change and need to be prepared to go with the flow.  

In both those situations my immediate emotional reaction (which I believe is a karmic pattern) is to feel betrayed.  It makes me angry and sad and it wasn't until I sat with this one for a while that I could see the truth of it.  Make your choices carefully but be prepared for outcomes other than what you expect.  You always have more choices than you think, my Zen teacher likes to reminds me.

So we have decided that even though Bunny is a biter and furniture scratcher these are not good enough reasons to evict her from our home.  She hates change of any sort (a self respecting cat quality I think) and we feel some obligation to this vulnerable little fur friend.  So that is the story of Bunny the cat and I will answer that email that has been sitting gathering dust in the inbox.  And I have learned a valuable lesson and I'm sure Bunny has a few more to teach me.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Uncharted Territory of the Body

Ah the body ... Today I went to the first class in a set of 5 Qi Gong classes and it got me thinking about the body, that place of pain, pleasure and mystery.   I studied with this same diminutive Qi Gong master last fall and it was amazing.  He adds sitting meditation to the movements he teaches making it an especially powerful experience.  I remember a number of years ago becoming aware of how much tension was locked in my body as I sat in meditation.  Yet the practice I was engaged in didn't address this.  I could address it on my own, but there it was the vast uncharted territory of the body.  Where to start, how to proceed?  I was baffled.

I read an article called "Meditating With the Body" by Reginald Ray and that gave me a hint that working skillfully with the body was possible.  As a typical Westerner I spend a lot of time in my head and working with mental  and emotional flotsam and jetsam seems fairly straightforward, not easy, but understandable.  But the body and it's tension, it's psychosomatic language, it's aches and pains, its stubborn, frightening ailments, now how did one enter there and begin to decode these strange messages?   No secret decoder ring available in the Captain Karma Crunch.

In his book, "Touching Enlightenment (Finding Realization in the Body)" Ray says,"The body is our forest, our jungle, the "outlandish" expanse where we might allow ourselves to be stripped down to our most irreducible person and see what, if anything remains.  In this I am speaking not of the body we think we have.  Rather, I am talking about the body that we meet when we are willing to descend into it. To surrender into its darkness and its mysteries, and to explore it with our awareness."

I like the idea (ah see, there is the head!) of working with the body because it gets me out of my head and I am more likely to end up in the moment, right here, right now .... whether it be trying to sense the chi or feeling that tightness in my shoulder.  There is something I sense about it that seems like a more direct route in some cases, if this makes any sense.  

Do I understand how to work with my body?  Not really.  This is definitely a foreign land to me who is so at home in her head.  But this is an aim of mine.  Through Qi Gong I can see how to approach the body somewhat, how to feel the energy that flows through it or find energy that is blocked and working its mischief.  Sometimes those blockages can tell me things about the mental emotional state that the mind refuses to unleash.  And  really we are an integrated whole, a body/mind,  rather than a mind and a body but we tend to do the separate and compartmentalize thing here in the west.   

And then there is the issue of  balance.  One of the stories of Qi gong is that it was developed in the Shao Lin Temple as a balancing influence to their hours of intense sitting in which the body remained immobile.  And in terms of working with the body  I think we, Westerners (or should I speak only for myself?!)  are a bit  like drooling infants (pause while I wipe my chin).

As Reginald Ray reminds us in his book, "To be awake, to be enlightened, is to be fully and completely embodied.  To be fully embodied means to be at one with who we are, in every respect, including our physical being, our emotions, and the totality of our karmic situation."  So it is with enthusiasm that I restart my Qi Gong practice which has fallen off during the previous months.  And I rededicate myself to navigating the mysteries of the body, working with it's energies and understanding in a different way than with my pointy little head.

Friday, February 13, 2009

What Is Faith?

Over  at Peter's Monkey Mind a discussion started on "faith".  It is something that has been on my list of things to write about in my 100 days of Dharma and so it seems like a good time to pull out my list and put that satisfying stroke through"faith".

When I was at University back in the dark ages, no make that the ice age (it was Winnipeg after all) I took a religious studies course.  I remember being completely baffled by the concept of "faith".  It made no sense to me.  You believed in something that there was no logical proof for?  How did that work?  I scratched my head and forgot about it.

When I started studying with my Zen teacher, the idea of faith came up again.  Not faith in anything (as we talked about over at the Monkeymind Cafe) but faith as a general disposition toward life.  It can seem like an abstract concept but really it is as practical as any other Buddhist idea, meant to be lived.  My teacher talks about "looking up" which I take to mean trusting or having a positive orientation to whatever the situation, knowing that what is happening, even if it doesn't  seem that way at the time, is for our highest and best good.  It may not be what we'd choose from the smorgasboard of life, but it is perhaps what we need.  She would also say, when asked why some unpleasant thing happened, that "something is working itself out."  Who are we to know what is good or bad really, the why's and the where fors, with our incomplete picture of the universe?  There is so much more to life and situations than we can see from our subjective little gopher holes out here in the landscape.

Sharon Salzberg has written a whole book on faith from the Buddhist perspective. Several of her definitions seem helpful, "to have faith is to offer one's heart or give over ones' heart..... It  is the willingness to take the next step, to see the unknown as an adventure, to launch a journey."   Later she adds to this: "Though we may repeatedly stumble, afraid to move forward in the dark, we have the strength to take that magnitude of risk because of faith."   These ideas reinforce the thought that faith is a way of life, rather than a concept, that we are living it, not thinking about it.

The following words on faith attributed to the Buddha help us recognize what faith looks like: "When faith arises it arrests the Five Hindrances (doubt, sensual desire, anger, sloth, restlessness and worry) and the heart becomes free from them, clear, serene and undisturbed."    Sounds like pure freedom, that ultimate state of faith.  And like numerous other Buddhist practices, it seems clear that faith takes time to cultivate and develop.  Salzberg adds, "The offering of one's heart happens in stages, with shadings of hesitation and bursts of freedom."

I find that sometimes it is easy to have faith, sometimes I forget to have faith and sometimes when I am really afraid I work very hard to have faith.  In a strange way, at these times, it seems,  I am clinging to faith, looking for faith to save me. It seems to me that I remember faith when I am in the toughest of spots and while I recognize that I can do better than using faith as some sort of crutch or band-aid it also makes me see the value of those tough spots.... ah I am learning about faith.  And perhaps sometimes I have faith without even knowing or thinking about it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Dare To Be Simple

This abstract painting bears the hand stamped words, "Dare To Be Simple"  It is part of a small series I did called "Zen Squared".  I liked this idea, dare to be simple, when I saw it in Canadian Designer, Bruce Mau's Manifesto for Creativity.  It seems to me that the call to live simply, create something simple, is daring in this modern world, where we are constantly assaulted with the idea that more is better, more stuff, more money....more, more, more.  

I can see the call to complexity in my own painting where I think I need to do more, add more, to make a painting better.  Many artists will tell you how hard it is to know when to stop, how many a painting has been ruined by adding one more thing.  How daring is the Zen enso, just a simple brush stroke on a white piece of paper.  How many of us are confident enough to think that a single brush stroke on a piece of paper will suffice?

In my mind Zen is the very essence of simplicity, just sitting, facing the wall.  Think enso as mentioned above, think tea ceremony, ikebana, bonsai.  Think of a temple with its sparse decor.  Think wabi sabi, the beauty of the old and worn (ah there is hope for us yet.  Forget the botox we're wabi sabi.)

In a strange way I think we crave simplicity as our world gets full and busy and complex.  Perhaps it is simply the inclinations for the pendulum to swing to the other side?  Perhaps by nature humans really thrive in a simple environment?  The modern urban environment buries us in an endless outpouring of sound and images and tastes until we're left feeling a bit numb and overwhelmed.   We are left swimming in a sea of clutter and chaos, tired and confused. And so the images and ideas of Zen are cleverly appropriated by admen and flashed at us in the hopes that we will buy one more thing to simplify our lives.  We might even want to leaf through a magazine called "Real Simple" to see all the things we need to make our lives simple, closet organizers and green tea and bath salts, and, and and.

But what is simplicity, really?  Why would we be interested in it? And how do we create it in our lives?  Is it less stuff, less work, is it just the opposite of more?  I think Philip Kapleau beautifully answers these questions in  "Three Pillars of Zen" when he says: "To squander is to destroy.  To treat things with reverence and gratitude, according to their nature and purpose, is to affirm their value and life, a life in which we are all equally rooted.  Wastefulness is a measure of .. our alienation from all things. from their Buddha-nature, from their essential unity with us".  

So if part of simplicity is living with less it means we get to work with our attachments, which according to Buddhism is the cause of our suffering.   Do I really need that thing, that thought?  Why do I think I need that?  Perhaps embracing simplicity calls for us to live more deeply, to savour, to be more conscious and thoughtful of what we do and say and think.   It sounds to me that it may be simple but not necessarily easy.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Zen Bean Counting

I've been thinking about "comparisons" today.  I watched as I worked myself into a bit of a funk a couple of days ago and it was all the result of comparing myself to others.  It's a no win game (worse than a lottery ticket) and one we play all the time.  It's unpleasant little fingers start in one place and reach out quietly into all sort of mischievous places.

The trouble started after I visited a few artists websites whose work I love, one in particular, Martha Marshall whose work I find to have a wonderful sense of spontaneity, life and joy.  I love her use of colour and form.  Then comes the thought.  I wish my paintings looked like that.  I wish my work had more of a sense of freedom and spontaneity  and blah, blah, blah.

Comparison seemed to be the order of the day.  A conversation with a senior Zen student left me feeling not very wise.  He was filled with compassion and understanding and wisdom in a quiet non judgmental way.  His stories were wonderful and he always seemed to know the right thing to say. And then came the thought.  I wish I were more like that, I wish I were more wise.  And then an internal feeling that was less than pleasant.  Just that felt sense of you know.... yukiness, you've been there.

And then I went off to my studio to paint.  So guess what?  How do you think that little painting session went?  If you guessed , less than stellar, you'd be taking home some money.  Nothing seemed to go right.  I didn't like anything I did and things seemed to lurch from bad to worse.  I could see the lack of confidence in the way I applied the paint, the tenuous strokes, the way I mucked it about, then wiped it off, applied it again and wiped it off again.  And then the light went as the afternoon burned itself out and it was time to clean up

What did I learn?  Well I learned that I've been here before, down this well trod road of self comparison.  I could see that there is nothing wrong in admiring another persons work or spiritual training, its what you do with it.  Do I use it to beat myself up or as a source of inspiration?  How would my painting afternoon have gone if these encounters would have made me feel invigorated and inspired?  

 But when I see something I love and start the mental bean counting I am in trouble.  If I assign the most beans to them I feel bad and my work (or day) responds accordingly.  If I win the pile of beans this time,  I feel the dry tickle of mean spiritedness and  lack of generosity stick in my throat.  So comparison is like a buttered crazy carpet, it heads downhill fast.  But we do it all the time, slip into it, like a comfortable old sweater.  It may be torn at the elbow, covered in pills but it is what we reach for.

And when I looked deeper and said "what's this all about?"  I could see it was just another manifestation of the human predicament of  "I am not good enough,"   one of the five hindrances in Buddhism, self doubt.  We all spend our time with this one if we're willing to be truthful with ourselves.  And what is the antidote?  Well I guess first it is to see with clear eyes what I'm getting up to and feel its destructive power. And then I think there are creative options. Maybe I can remind  myself that I could compose a different ending to the same story, or  I could just let go of the story altogether.  See the paintings, beautiful, hear  the Zen stories, wonderful, do my painting, wash the brushes.