Friday, May 29, 2009

Mara's Been Dipping Into The Paint Pots

I know you've seen this image before.  It's kind of like I'm serving you leftovers.  Last time you had the whole thing and now you're getting just a small portion, an ear, an eye, a bit of leaf.  And why leftovers you ask?   It's not that I haven't been cooking up anything new in the old paint pot, it's just not quite ready for public consumption, half baked, perhaps?

This painting is called "Buddha Cries A Leaf".  And even with the tear  it doesn't feel sad to me.  This Buddha feels connected to and concerned for the world, for the forests and trees, for the natural world.  The tear drop leaf is a tear of compassion and concern.

I'm thinking about the creative process tonight.   I'm going to throw a quote out to welcome you, like a little red carpet.  Here let me unroll it:  "And often the process of creation is unenjoyable, tormenting, and frustrating, just as a prayer may open to the difficult and confusing struggles of life." -Shaun McNiff "Trust The Process."

I have been watching this phenomenon of the creative process as a source of torment and frustration over the last two weeks.  I have been  looking over my own shoulder which makes me sound like a strange 2 headed zen monster.  In getting some paintings ready for submission to the Art Gallery's summer show, here's what I've learned.  For me painting is a long windy process.  I don't usually know where I'm going and there are often detours and dead end roads along the way.  I need lots of time and space to navigate all the unknown curves.  And so it goes that a reservation at a nice hotel that needs to be claimed by 4 pm, doesn't really work for me.  I knew that before I started but thought I would just take the trip and everything would work out fine.  Ha!  My studio became a dojo where instead of quietly and meditatively taking up the paint brush I engaged in a few rounds of wrestling.  Killer Kowalski put on his best blue leotard and stopped by for a round or two.  Most of the time I had myself all twisted up in a figure four leg lock and was pulling my own hair.  Killer thought this was pretty funny stuff!

When I go to paint, usually I am just going to paint, if that makes any sense to you.  On a good day I explore the materials, muck about and hours can pass.  I am happily engaged and sometimes something pleasing emerges.  But because I "needed" to produce something by a specific date for a specific audience I made myself all crazy.  What would the curator like?  And  of course, it must be really good, after all this is the big, public gallery here in town.  So by now I am really twisted up like a psychotic pretzel.  But I know better right.  So I try not to do this which some how gets me deeper into the doodoo.  I am struggling with what I should do, what I shouldn't do.  Those thoughts which I know are unhelpful are hiding there in the back of my mind, slinking around in the dark.  I can hear the little paw prints on the hardwood floors.  So it's me, some paint, some canvas and Mara.  There she is stirring the pot.  She is in her element.

I can see what I do and yet I spend days wrestling, feeling defeated and getting nowhere.  Maybe I should give this up.  Maybe I'm not really supposed to be doing this.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.  Mara stirs a little doubt into the yellow paint.  Then she smears a little attachment across the canvas.  A big messy dark spot of desire.  I wash it all off,  sit down in my chair and close my eyes.  After a while I start again.  I ask the painting to tell me what it needs.  I try to listen.  Have faith, I say to myself like a little mantra.  And so some days I take a few steps forward and a few steps back.  I am not really pleased or smitten with anything that emerges but I try not to tell the paintings they are ugly.

And so I see how all this simply reflects age old habits of how I operate in the world.  I look at myself (like my paintings) through the eyes of some imagined curator and always find myself (like the paintings) not quite good enough.  So I get all crazy and try and make myself (and my paintings) measure up to some imagined standards.  I see how counter productive it is as I work in the studio.  I see how this little room  strewn with brushes and paper is really just a mirror of the bigger rooms that I live in.  I see where the work is to be done. 

And so instead of giving up or getting mad or depressed, or winging something out the window, everyday I get up and start all over again.  I make the effort to relax and just be.  I try to forget that  I am working toward an end.  I make it my aim to focus on the process.  Some days I am more successful than others and some days I find myself lying in a knot on the floor.   But it is the willingness to reorient and to learn that is important: the ability to add a line or two to a paint smear and make it beautiful, to rework what seems unworkable.   I am "Going, going, going beyond, always becoming Buddha" - from  "The Scripture of Great Wisdom."

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Be Willing To Be Disturbed By The Truth

I have a couple of  Dharma thoughts rolling around in the old grey matter.  I'm not sure why we call it grey matter because I heard Rick Hanson describe our brains as being a lot like a couple of pounds of cottage cheese (but maybe that was just the consistency, not colour. Grey cottage cheese, blech!!).  And that's the useless fact for today kids!

The other day as I was walking with a friend she told me about a woman from my old Sangha that had recently had surgery for stomach cancer, in fact she had her entire stomach removed.  Now while we all might find this a bit shocking it touched me deeply.  In fact I couldn't quite shake the unsettled feeling this left me with.  As I wobbled around in the darkness for a day or so, I considered what it was about this I found so disturbing.

Having done the whole big C thing myself  almost two years ago I could appreciate the difficulty of the situation: the delivery of the diagnosis, the waiting for surgery, the hospitalization, the surgical escapade and recovery.  I knew all those crevices rather intimately.  And did I mention the fear.  Yes the frozen landscape of terror we travel through at various points in the journey.  Of course my heart went out to her.  But it wasn't just that.

What then?  As I went through the excavation project, digging to the bottom of the unsettled hole it looked like this: This woman, who I had reduced into  caricature of herself, seemed to have a charmed life from outside appearances.  She is quite beautiful has a devoted husband an incredible water front home, and a PHD in something.  Everything our culture values, perfection embodied, all the ducks in a row.  And yet here she was ..... in this seemingly samsaric state.  Kind of like a "hungry ghost", unable to eat, but needing sustenance to survive.  

And when I looked it in the eye, lying there at the bottom of the hole, was impermanence, all red eyed and knarly toothed.  Just staring me down, saying Carole, look at me.  There are no guarantees, no one gets one in this human life, can't buy the extended warranty on this one, offer not valid on this product.  The great "unknown", where we all live all of  the time, hadpopped up and given me a big wack on the upside of my pointy little head..  There it was reminding me that squirming is optional but that the nature of existence is that "we really never know".  

I need to be reminded.  I need to be reminded on a regular basis so that I get it at a blood and bones level.  So that I don't continuously push it away.  I need to be an intimate acquaintance of impermanence (ya, me and impermanence we're sleeping together).  It is not dark or frightening if understood in the fullness of what we  are.   We are really just energy passing through this human realm, but somehow when we get here to this little earthy abode we build ourselves a house of  brick solid thoughts for protection.  We don't like it when the wolf comes by huffing and puffing.  There is a Buddhist quote from Dogen in the Shobogenzo that goes something like : " be willing to be disturbed by the truth."    And I think that is it, shearly and utterly.  I was disturbed by the truth.  And as I always find when these things come to me.  I can't make them go away.  Just as they arrive, they leave quietly after I have entertained them.  And I am wiser for the truth.  And me and the big bad wolf, we're going out for coffee tomorrow.  Want to come?

Monday, May 25, 2009

What Are You Packing For Your Final Trip?

This morning as I sat in meditation these words popped up on my little mind screen: "All we take with us when we die is our good and bad karma."  As a spiritual detective I started looking around for the door that these thoughts wandered in through.  What rippled through my experience and mind to produce this little shard of Dharma?  (It is not my original thought, but a quote from somewhere. I'm not sure where).  I could see a couple of open doors that offered a way in for this slightly cautionary quote.  Following on the heels of this thought were the last words of the Buddha, which go something like:  "Work out your future with diligence."  (Now if someone would close the door, it's getting kind of crowded in here with all these thoughts busting in.)

Last night I heard of the sudden death of a woman in her 40's who had recently quit work at my mother's care home.  There had been some disharmony between her and others at the facility so she decided to leave.  A week after she'd left to enjoy  a summer break, her life here in this human realm was over.  Working in her garden, seeming pretty vibrant and alive, and poof that's it, end of this human life.  So we never know.  Instead of working myself into a fear lather (that's from the spiritual sodium laurel sulphate in my mind) when I heard this story it reminded me that every moment counts (there's 2 sides to this little karmic coin).  While we should live with gusto and passion, we also need to live with care and attention to the small choices we make in our lives.  On the karmic dance card, every step counts.  This is not meant to hang over our head in a heavy and gloomy way, it is simply a reflection of the truth, of how things really are.

Over the last couple of days I have also been chewing on some family affairs that have left me with a lingering feeling of "that's not fair".  You know those jags the little self gets on .... and has a hard time letting go of?  Rottweiler mind  just won't let go.   For starters it's most often about "what is not working for me".  This is the modus operandi of the little self.  In this case it had to do with some money and I won't go into it.    For starters it makes me feel greedy that it even comes up so  strongly for me.  But that's another rabbit hole.  

I could see that little rottweiler mind kept working that bone during the day and  that I couldn't really will it to go away.  Those thoughts kept popping up like little gophers on the landscape (remember that wack a mole game?).  I kept wacking those darn moles with the present moment but they kept popping up.  And as I know, time passes and eventually the little mole storm settles down and the horizon is quite clear of furry, marauding thoughts.  The rotweiller is quiet and all is clear on the western front.  

So when I was reminded this morning that all we take with us is our good and bad karma, it offered me some perspective.  The money is not important.  It is much more important to concern myself with how I conduct myself in this matter.  Do I act on my irritation?  Do I let my irritation and greed; my desire, cloud my behaviour and interaction with others?  This doesn't mean I won't say what seems appropriate (we are not zen doormats) but I must remember not to speak or act out of that place of irritation and desire.  I can contemplate my options and say what I feels need to be said and move on.

So in that way I am preparing my suitcase for my final journey, one that can come at any time.  We never know the time or circumstances of our death.  The Dalai Lama says he spends time every day preparing for his death.  So it's kind of like that emergency preparedness pack they keep encouraging us to have stored in our homes.  We need to be constantly checking the spiritual luggage and working to fill it with the appropriate actions and thoughts, the ones that will carry us into our next lives.  So there you have it I am thinking about what's in my spiritual valise, what I might add and what I need to take out and leave behind.  May you pack well and may both the packing and the journey be fruitful.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Watching My Words

Look at this beautiful Buddha.  Last week I came home to find a large package on my back step.  It was the Buddha you see here and he had travelled all the way from Australia.  He was tired and thirsty and needed to be busted out of his bag.  One of the fun things on Etsy is that sellers sometimes do trades.  And through a series of conversations with Kazmattas we decided to trade one of her silk screens for one of my "Paint Box Buddhas".   I love that this Buddha is silk screened on to a wonderful patchwork fabric in one of my favourite colours, mossy green.  Right now he is hanging out with his other Buddha buddies in the dining room and looking right at home.

But enough about packages and Buddha trading (is that like horse trading?)  I have been thinking about right speech.  Right speech is one of  the members of the eightfold path (no that's not some bizarre cult, it's the path that leads to the end of suffering).  It's pretty evident that saying unpleasant things to people out of anger or pride or greed is wrong speech.  And most of us on the path know to heed the advice of Bambi's friend Thumper who said, "if you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all."  This doesn't mean that you need to go roll around in the sugar bowl and come out all candy coated, it just means, use speech with care.  If you're angry or can't find the appropriate response it's probably best to wait.  You can always add to conversation later, it's more difficult to eat your words.

The aspect of right speech I have become more aware of lately in myself is a kind of complaining or fault finding.  I have seen it before but seeing it was as far as I got.  But the other day I got this heady whiff of it  and it was calling for attention (is that the ocean or does this conversation really stink?).  It went like this.  My partner and I were out for a walk.  We were chatting about various things, his visit with his mother, the neighbours building a new deck, this and that.  But as the conversation progressed I became painfully aware of how it included so much fault finding about things people were doing that WE thought they shouldn't be, their issues, their obsessions, their peculiarities.  Some of the comments were even amusing and entertaining in a cynical kind of way.  But suddenly it came up for me very strongly what an energy sucker this type of conversation was, how ungenerous it felt, how it left both of us in a slightly grumbly mood on a beautiful sunny day.   There was a stinginess of spirit to this talk and it felt pointless in a what-are-we-doing-this-for sort of way.

When I pointed it out we could both see that it is an habitual way of being in the world.  It is tempting and alluring because in a strange way it's like eating a whole bag of potato chips.  It feels good at the time but with a little awareness we notice later how crappy they make us feel.  And why do we do it?  Are we trying to make ourselves feel better, fuller, more satisfied?  Like the chips this conversation fills a gap.  It's familiar, comfortable and soothes the vulnerable little self  (because heavens, we'd never do those foolish things)  How often does conversation with friends and family revolve around this he said/she said kind of business?

Now I won't go so far as to say I will never slip into this type of conversation again but I am doing my best to notice the inclination toward it and avoid it, or stop if I catch myself  mid grumble.   The fact that this conversation feels like a form of suffering and stinginess all of a sudden makes it feel strongly like a poison to avoid (okay who sprinkled the hemlock on my potato chips?)

And the interesting thing I've learned is that two things happen when I'm not complaining or finding fault with others in my conversation.  There are more quiet moments and it opens up the opportunity for more wholesome conversation, conversation that is based on gratitude and a more positive approach to life.  It is again that stance of looking up, instead of down.  It is a changing of habits.  It is the ongoing work of practice.  There are those things we know in our head and one day without warning they finally drop down to our heart and radiate out into the world from there.

I will end with this quote from Master Hsu Yun: "We think that words are not deeds, that they have little power and a short life, that somehow words evaporate with the breath that speaks them.  But words do have power and they can live forever; and furthermore, they can heal as well as harm."

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Be Like A Big Fat Happy Orange Buddha!

I bought this happy little guy with some birthday bucks I received.  I'd been lusting after him in all his orangeness (is this improper to say about the Buddha?) in a local shop and finally made the choice to bring him home with me.  I mostly don't like this image of the Buddha, preferring more serene looking ones, but there was something so intensely right about this fat, happy, shiny orange Buddha.  He truly does make me smile when I pass him.

Yesterday I had a lovely Dharma chat with a friend that just returned from England.  While she was there she saw Tenzin Palmo, whose book "Cave In the Snow" is a truly amazing account of her 12 year retreat in the Himalayas. My friend was smitten with Tenzin Palmo, her clarity and insight.  As we chatted about our respective Dharma experiences my friend made the comment that Tenzin Palmo had said "Westerners are so confused."  So I had to ask, if Easterners were less confused.  A recent comment I had read said basically that we are all somewhat confused until we're enlightened.

My friend's understanding was that Tenzin felt we westerners are more confused because we lack a sense of self.  Again I had to check on what that meant.  And she said we are often beseiged by self hatred which is not part of the Eastern mindset and our confusion stems from this.  I  remember a story about the Dalai Lama being asked about self-hatred.  When the question was posed to him he spent a long time chatting with his translator as the concept of self-hatred (or contempt, or dislike, if you prefer) was so incomprehensible to him.  He was apparently visibly saddened when he learned that we Westerners spend a lot of time in this state.  

This mindset of self hatred is the opposite of confidence according to Tenzin Palmo.   And  so because we don't like or believe or trust in ourselves, our doubting minds are very active and cause us to second guess ourselves, to wander around thinking, "now should I do this or should I do that?  How do I decide?"  And we often become paralyzed with inactivity and fear of making the wrong choice (that's my koan sometimes).  Or we run off and make completely goofy choices that reverberate with suffering later on, simply because we have been unable to consider our options clearly.  

This comment on confidence was a really interesting aspect of Tenzin Palmo's teaching because when I recently did a little Dharma exercise in "feeding my demons" what came up for me was precisely this issue, "have more confidence, belief, faith in yourself."  My habitual tendency to think in this way goes something like this: "oh, this might work for others but not for me" or somewhere hiding in the back of my mind, often in a subtle way, lies the belief that things won't work out or I can't possibly succeed at this or that task.  I suspect I am not alone in thinking these thoughts.  

And that is a place where I am directing some Dharma energy these days, chipping way, or perhaps I prefer melting away the solid, frozen waste land of self-hatred and self doubt.  Like an iceberg this tendency protrudes deep below the surface, only showing its icy tip in the landscape.  When we think of self confidence we are not talking about arrogance or aggression or a me-first kind of way of being in the world.  We are not talking about encouraging "pride" which in fact is one of the 5 hindrances and is really just a thin table cloth spread over the picnic of self doubt and hatred.

So that's the word for today kids!  Be like the big, fat orange happy Buddha.  Love your self, that true essential fat, orange Buddha nature in you that is always there.  Know that inside you, you possess everything you need to find your way in this world.  Because only when we truly love ourselves can we share our love, generosity and compassion with others.  Go out there and play nice (and don't forget to have some milk and cookies!)

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Preparing For The Best

Last week over at the Dangerous Harvest blog a couple of comments were made that have stuck with me and which I have tried to bring into my daily practice.  In a discussion of Swine Flu there was a comment made about "preparing for the worst" and Barry of the Oxherding blog made an interesting comment of I wonder what it would be like to "prepare for the best"!

Now that turned some lights on  in the dark little room I sometimes bang about in.  My Zen teacher and I often comment  to each other that we are "aversive types" whose minds often go to the dark bits of lint on the carpet.  But to some extent we're all aversive types.  Brain research as cited by people like Rick Hanson over at "Wise Brain" say it's the nature of our brain to be drawn to the negative, rooted deeply in our origin as vulnerable creatures out on the Savannah.  That has helped keep us alive as a species and we still carry this proclivity with us even into our modern world.  What no tigers looking to make a meal out of me, well maybe that neighbour who's making all that noise is a threat to my peace of mind.

So to make a short story long, as I often do, I have been using this as a little mantra, "why not be prepared for the best".  Each time I think about something that could happen or might happen, or something going on that I don't care for, I am practicing saying "why not be prepared for the best".    My Zen teacher would call this "looking up".  And what could be a more helpful way to be in the world.  If we're looking up, we're most likely to see the sun, the birds, the blue sky. Certainly for me it's a turning, it's an opportunity to work with the habitual tendency to look down and see the gum stuck on the side walk.

And it is important I think to remember that looking up, is not putting on rose tinted glasses and saying everything is wonderful if it ain't!  It's not about pushing away our pain if that's what's coming up for us.  It's about not going with the tendency to look through the pain stained glasses all the time.  There is a joke in my family that we make about my mother.  It's either too hot or too cold for her.  And if we're not careful we may find ourselves living out our lives in this same inhospitable environment.  I say time to cultivate a little inner climate change!  I don't have a toothache, it's not raining and I am happy that I am fit and able enough to go off and paint my upstairs hallway today!  I have coffee and a paint brush and am "prepared for the best"

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Honest Scrap Award Washed Down With Lemonade!


On Monday when I stopped by Marcus' Journal to see what was up on his Dharma radar there was a pleasant little surprise waiting for me, all wrapped up in this rather charming retro sign.  I was the recipient (along with 6 others) of  The Honest Scrap Award.  It is a little blogging tag game that I was unfamiliar with.  Marcus received the tag-your-it-tap-on-the-shoulder from James Ford over at Monkey Mind and has passed it along to 7 of us.  (Here is your mission, should you choose to accept it...)  You must brag about receiving the award.  You must name 7 blogs you find brilliant and tell 10 honest things about yourself.

EEk,  I guess I'll give it a go, I thought.  And then last night when I checked my own blog for comments I found the Humble Yogini had stopped by and dropped off a lovely pitcher of freshly squeezed lemonade (better known as the lemonade award) which "is given to bloggers who show a positive attitude, gratitude, and a willingness to share their ideas, support and online friendship. In other words, people who make lemonade when they get lemons!  The rules for this award are that you  put the logo on your blog or post. Nominate at least 7 blogs that show great Gratitude and/or Attitude and link your nominees within your post.  Let them know they have received this award by leaving a comment on their blog."

So it seemed fitting to partake of the Honest Scrap Award (you've heard of those people in Ripley's Believe it Or Not who eat a bus?) and wash it down with a freshly squeezed Lemonade Award.  Ah, a satisfying repast!  So enough pre dinner chit-chat, let's get down to the main course.

Now I must say I didn't notice Marcus brag about receiving the award???? and you know how you hate those celebrity speeches at the Oscar's where we fall into a Sleeping Beauty soporific stupor, so we won't even go there.  I could thank my suffering for getting me interested in the Dharma.  And I can thank my neighbour who through an incident that involved the ripping of much ivy from a fence, the tearing of some then applied bamboo beach mats and an exchange of some angry words for bringing me to a life of serious practice.   There's something about an intense dust up with anger that gets you to see what  a serious poison it is. So pssst, wake up, I'm going to tell you what blogs I love and why ( in no particular order, kinda like me)!

Peter's Monkeymind is a great blog by a serious Zen practitioner who is willing to bare his soul, share his tender spots and does the amazing work of a Buddhist Chaplain at Hospice.  He has a broad range which covers the Dharma, art and poetry.  His site is a wonderful resource and he looks at things with precision and depth.

The Humble Yogini was going to get the Honest Scrap Award before she  delivered the lemonade so I will go right ahead and pass it along.  I have been reading her blog since I arrived as a recent immigrant to the Blogosphere in Dec/08 and am always impressed with her willingness to share her stuff and her wise and upbeat attitude.  She covers a wide span too with lots of reference and links to info on yoga as a spiritual practice.  She is also intensely interested in environmental issues and offers lots of food for thought, resources and inspiration on that  subject too.

Dangerous Harvest  is a blog I've only just discovered and oh, oh, you've been tagged twice here, Nathan, once by Marcus and now I can't resist doing it again.  I hope it's not like a bee sting that sends you looking for a hit of steroids.  I love what I've read of Nathan because not only doess he live the Dharma but he is very funny.  Check out his Zen Cat post, it's hilarious.  

Full Contact Enlightenment is also a recent discovery.  I am embarrassed to tell you that I found this site while googling myself ( that sounds vaguely rude, don't you think?)  You gotta keep up on the gossip about yourself out there!   A young woman out of Montreal serves up some really good Dharma writing with a large side of funny.  I found "The Untrashing of Brad Warner" to be an especially entertaining piece of writing.

An Artist's Journal is another blog I frequent.  I love the art of Floridian, Martha Marshall.  It is colourful, spontaneous and beautiful.  She writes about process on pretty much a daily basis and her kind a generous spirit shines through.  She freely shares little art demos and writes about different techniques that she's trying out.  You feel like you've just stopped by and had coffee with your wonderfully creative and inspiring artist friend, Martha.  Now you are ready to go home and roll up your sleeves and get to work.  I have learned about paint skins and how to create an animoto video for free here (although I wasn't quite clever enough to figure out how to post it to my site!)

Hey Harriet's Blog is a fun site.  Her banner is made up of scrabble tiles and her name is not even Harriet.  A "random surreal generator" welcomes you each day with bizarre statements to expand your mind like "My jester is full of slippery ice floes.  Please spear my supermodel."  This is the home of "The Sunday Shadow Shot" where people from around the world post shadowy pictures they have taken and then you can tour (compliments of Mr Linky) and see as many as you like.  I've been to Finland and Sweden and goodness knows where, viewing shadows.  I can feel Tracey's fun and generous spirit in her comments that she leaves on people's shadow shots and her comments.   I like that there's this slightly exotic flavour of Oz with all the links to Australian sites.

Gallery Juana is another site I visit on a regular basis.  I love her Asian flavoured art and the fact that I feel like I've had a little visit to Japan when I stop by.  There are pictures of Tokyo and sometimes her washing machine or her cat, or her shoes.  And she tells little stories that give you a feeling of what it's like to be a foreigner living in Japan.  Again her spirit of kindness and generosity shine through.

And now for the 10 Honest things.  Should they be brutally honest, amusingly honest, embarrassingly honest, or a combination?

1. When I was 5 I was bitten on the butt by a very large dalmatian dog.  If that wasn't enough, the police officer asked if he could see where the dog had bitten me!

2. When my daughter was a couple of months old I locked her in the car (by accident, kids)  By the time I'd finished freaking out because all the neighbours were out and I couldn't call anyone, I realized the back of the old toyota station wagon was unlocked!

3. I love salt & vinegar potato chips. (In fact as a small child I used to sneak into the kitchen cabinet every now and then for a swig of vinegar.

4. I don't own a watch that works.

5. Once when my daughter was young and we were staying in a hotel we went out to get ice from the machine.  I didn't pay any attention to our floor or room number and much to her mortification I knocked on at least one wrong door before I found our room.  If you ask her she will tell you a similar story about a car parkade.

6.  I am shy and hate mingling at parties.  I might even prefer a visit to the dentists, which I also detest.

7. I once deposited a scoop of dog poop by the driver's door of a young neighbour's porsche when all other attempts to get his dog to stop using my garden as a toilet had failed.

8.  I love the Home & Garden Channel and Food Network TV.

9. I am a self confessed food snob (ie I only like certain coffee and only muffins from Wildfire Bakery etc, etc, blah, blah blah)

10. I get nervous when we're driving through the mountains (which you must do to leave BC) and have been known to hang on to the door handle when we pass big semi-trucks (I'm the passenger in this scenario).  My daughter used to say, "mom's afraid of tipping over".  She finds this quite amusing.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Feeding Your Demons

I was going to crop this photo of the Buddha painting I just finished and then was amused because it looks like he's waiting for a call.  ET, is that you?

Last night I decided to listen to a Dharma talk and chose some talks by Tsultrim Allione of Tara Mandala.  I like her quiet presence and the fact that she is a woman who follows a practice from a female Tibetan tradition.  The talks were fine but they reminded me to return to her book "Feeding Your Demons" which is outstanding.  The book is subtitled "Ancient Wisdom For Resolving Inner Conflict" and is based on the ancient Tibetan practice called "Chod" (pronounce che).

It's interesting how we all have our thing.  Yesterday I was over at Peter's monkeymind blog and he said, okay after this I'm not going to write about fear anymore.  One of my great teachers has been my physical health and sometimes I think you might get tired of hearing about it.....  It can be a great source of frustration and longing and grasping for me.  Am I ever going to feel well? and blah, blah, blah?  I go over the same territory so many times it get's boring even to me.  But it's like a compost bin, lots of rich, stinky stuff here that makes the garden grow.

I decided it was time to bark up a different tree regarding my health (and I'm not even a dog person)  Maybe I  should meow down a different mouse hole??  But I digress in a fit of foolishness. Tsultrim Allione has a chapter on "The Demons of Illness" and so with a slightly nagging sore throat I turned to it and started to read.   In the afternoon as I worked in the garden I was aware of the vague sense of feeling crummy (and man, I could see how much I just want to push this away, in a poof, wave my magic wand, be gone, kind of way)  but I said to myself, "Self, maybe what you need to do is ask, what are these feelings of unwellness trying to tell you, what is the message here.  All the herbs and vitamins  have just not cut it."   

And so when I turned to Allione's chapter on illness I was ready to hear what she had to say.  I think she had been snooping on my thoughts..... because listen to her: "If we always treat the symptoms by trying to suppress them and never understand what the disease is trying to tell us, we may miss important information that the body is trying to communicate."  In another place she says. "If we can shift our conventional understanding of illness to see it as a form of energy, we can understand this way of healing..... In order for us to "get" an illness, it has to be able to find in us a receptive environment, like a key fitting into a keyhole.."

Now where is she going with this you might ask.  I have examined my inclination to feel responsible, inferior and a failure for "getting sick".  I acknowledge my part in it for the way I have used my mind, but that is not the whole story.  Sometimes I just wonder if it is my karma to be sick, but then I remind myself to be careful about that thought too.  Maybe yes, but I don't know this for sure.  I am aware that I can't will something to disappear, but I can do my part.  

And here's what Allione so skillfully reminds us when she sites the research of Candace Pert, a specialist in immunology: "she discovered that consciously setting an intention or creating a visualization can affect the "periaqueductal gray" (does this sound like some kind of parrot to you?), located between the 3rd and 4th ventricles in the brain.... it can explain how it is possible for our conscious mind to enter the network and play a deliberate part."  It's not so much that the mind has power, she says but "that the body and mind are one... intelligence is distributed democratically all over the body."  I like that.  We're a democratic entity.  At least democracy exists somewhere!  And this is in keeping with Buddhist thought that the mind is simply another sense organs with thoughts as their object, a nose smells odours, a mind thinks thoughts.  In the west we assign so much power to the mind.  It seems so unbalanced when you stop and think about it.

So the process of feeding your demons is one of finding the feelings of illness or pain in your body, personifying them and then sitting across from them and having a wee chat.  How do they look?  What do they want?  What do they need?  And how will they feel when they get it?  And then we feed them something to nourish them, a nectar that we create from our own bodies which prevents them from feeding on us.  She has a series of steps for this "chod" practice and it can be used for other things besides physical illness.  I won't explain it here in detail but it is definitely worth exploring.

I used this method when I first bought the book last year and found it helpful but then in true human fashion I forgot about it and went on to something else.   Call me crazy but I tried it again this morning and I don't have a sore throat tonight.  My demon looked kind of like this sharp nosed cartoon character, dressed in black, a little angled fedoa, arched eyebrows.  He found me rather weak and wanting, an easy host he said.  He told me I needed to have more faith, more belief in my self (but I thought there was no self???.)  Points taken.  His nectar was lemon pie filling which he slurped up with gusto, it was sunny and tart and sweet all at once and it was just what the demon ordered, apparently.   He said he would feel hopeful when he got what he needed.

Does this all sound somewhat odd to you?  For me it addresses the whole issue on another level, a level that is not connected to logic and reason, a level that is connected to the mystery that exists, to the unknown, the subconscious.  It addresses "the conflict" whatever it may be  on a level we seldom go to.  I am pushed there because logic and reason have failed to resolve my "conflict". I believe we are pushed to greater depths by our own suffering and conflicts, if we are willing to go there.  For me it is about having faith and following the call of my own intuitive self, not the little self, but that source of deeper knowing.  

Here is my wish for you.  May your suffering lead you to deeper understanding of life.  May it transform you.  May you emerge as someone deeper and wiser and more compassionate than the one who started out on this journey.  May your suffering be the kind that leads to the end of suffering. May you savour the sweet and sour all at once.  Now go... and fix yourself some lemon pudding or whatever your demons are shouting and banging on the table for.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Doing My Part

I am thinking about how we assign value to everything.  Was today a good day or a bad day?   We humans have the tendency  to carve things up and put them into little tear stained or pleasure smudged packages.  This became clearer to me today because in the morning a couple of things transpired that I might put into the mildly "not good" category.  I was aware of that and resisted the temptation to go down the bummed out avenue.  I was remembering faith and reminded myself that "everything is fine just the way it is".   I was remembering my teacher's comment that "the universe is not out to get us." 

In the afternoon several pleasant things transpired.  I was invited to show some art in the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria's Summer Works show and my copy of Tricycle with my "Forest Buddha" in it arrived.  If I were in the carving mode I would have felt vaguely depressed in the morning then happy in the afternoon, and tired from all the slicing and dicing.  

The ebb and flow of circumstances stood out today, how the pleasant and unpleasant just flow into one another, in no particular order, one event unrelated to the next, a nice email, a not so nice phone call, nothing personal, just a day unfolding.  No need to do a happy dance or a crappy dance.  Just the truth of impermanence making itself clear.  And there riding on it's coat tails was equanimity, just in time to keep me company on a peaceful walk along the ocean, one where I could just look at the brilliant  chartreuse green that only Spring leaves can wear.  I could see the sunlight reflecting on the cold water, the faces of the other walkers along the path.  I was not chewing on anything, no spiritual indigestion today.

How did I get there, to the little destination of equanimity?  Did I take a train, call a cab?  Partly it's a mystery because sometimes we can do the same work, the same practice and it eludes us.  Again I am reminded that we do our part, but the timing is not up to us.  What I was aware of today was choice.  I made the disciplined choice to not go down the path of feeling bad over this small thing, not to get in a snit when my mother's care home called to say she was in a snit and could I sort it out, not to feel sub-human when I went to pick up some expired work at a gallery and the work hanging there looked so much more professional than mine, clean and polished and sophisticated.  And then just as importantly I didn't wing off into elation when the "pleasurable" experiences arrived.  These choices left me with a steady, calm feeling.  Even my walk was interesting.  Instead of feeling tired from a long walk, I felt much the same when I arrived home.  As I walked I could feel how much less physical energy a state of equanimity used, how breathing and relaxing and just being, used much less energy than other modes of being.

So the teachings were waiting patiently for me to find them today, like a little spiritual treasure hunt.  I learned that my inner state does not have to be dependent on what is going on out there in the world, that it wears me out to be constantly lobbed back and forth by circumstance.  I learned I have a choice about how I regard what's going on and how I respond.  And for me it's not just how I respond outwardly but it has to do with the emotional spin I put on that incoming information.  I can decline the choice to feel inferior, depressed or over excited.  I learned that is what "doing my part" is all about.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Treat or Retreat

I am doing a little retreat of sorts, giving more time over to meditation and contemplation for a week.  Timing and circumstances have offered me the opportunity.  It has coincided with a period where I have been reading less Dharma.  This has not been any conscious decision but just happened.  It is interesting because my observation is that I am learning my "Dharma" more deeply, directly from my life.  It feels like when I read other more advanced practitioners and teachers I get it in my head, in an oh-yeah-that makes-sense kind of way.  And  then that finished, I move on and the idea or Dharma lesson floats somewhere on the surface, like a lovely little bubble.  It feels akin to naming things, when we see the bird or tree or whatever and name it, we think we know it.  But the phrase "knowing something too soon prevents us from really knowing it" comes to mind.  Somehow when we "know too soon" we don't really "see"  with any depth.  But if we stop to look, without the intervention of words and labels, somehow we give ourselves the space to really "see" things.  

So when I actually find fear in my life or sloth and torpor and really explore these things I "get it" at a deeper level.  So that's what this week is about, a little more first hand Dharma, a little more depth.  

Last night was the beginning of my retreat.  The previous night some physical symptoms prompted me to go off on a little "worry fest" about my health.  I watched how quickly this can just flare up, a little brush fire in the spiritual forest.  Poof and we've burned half an acre.  What's that all about I asked?  The wise little Dharma gnome inside me said that it was about fear.  As most humans I am attached to my life so thoughts of death frighten me.  "And why is that?"  I inquire of the gnome?  "It's the self that fears it's disappearance, that values itself as "a thing", more important than all else."  Otherwise we are just energy, passing through this world, learning, watching, experiencing, no big deal.  Also Ms Gnome pointed out that it was all a little mind game, generated by that trickster, monkey mind, that I was imagining a situation and it's outcome, running little badly filmed home movies in my head.  Sheesh, someone turn that projector off, list it under free stuff on Craigslist!  So that was the fear episode, not nearly as entertaining as reruns of Seinfield but there it was.

Next I was visited by sloth and torpor.  Is this starting to sound like the "Ghosts of Christmas Past"?   Sorry no pudding for  you.  My close buddies S&T, look like some large lumpy cartoon characters, lumbering, slow and somewhat depressed.   They are so not spa like or good company at all.  I turned up the heat (it was damp and chilly here last night), got out some books and my computer, had a nap, read some and kind of sat like a zombie for a bit.  Sloth and Torpor snuggled up close. Maybe I should do something, na.  And so the evening passed.  I was just getting by.  You know that feeling.  Now I want to qualify that it's good to be with what is, and I also want to say that savouring some down time is a good thing too.  But only I can look deeply at what I am doing and know who I'm snuggling down with.  Is it joy and appreciation or S&T?  Truth is the important issue here.  What am I up to?  

This morning as I looked back at my evening the movie became a little clearer.  My fear had sent me running to my companions of Sloth & Torpor, comfortable, habitual friends for me in such situations.  I was wallowing.  I knew it at the time and yet...... I accused myself of it, said some unpleasant things about it which of course made me feel loads better HA!  So fear>>>>spawned laziness which really was a form of depression.  (Are we setting up the dominoes again?)  And then I noticed the propensity to engage in some unpleasant self talk about it all, nothing kind or comforting here.  I wouldn't talk to a friend like this, so why is it okay to grumble at myself like this??  So I could see where the work needs to be done.  Seeing all this is the compassionate side of suffering. It is the suffering that leads to the end of suffering, as opposed to more suffering.   I add this in case it all sounds a bit grim to you.  Man this woman's a downer, I think I'll change the channel.

So it seemed the first order for today was a little right effort, "grasping the will" my teacher calls it.   Some qi gong, some meditation.  Sometimes it is really hard work to get yourself to these things when your inclination is to stay and hang out with S&T.  And as I sat in meditation it all became clearer.  I could see the need for compassion toward the little self.  often I am barking out orders and criticisms (and eek using the Dharma as the grounds for this)  saying ridiculous things like "Self, don't be so fear based, don't be so lazy."  If I were in charge here I'd just up and fire me as guardian and motivator of this little Dharma Life.  Go get a job at Malwart!

So that's the first retreat installment.  More to come I'm sure.  I am off to paint, paint, paint and hopefully it's not myself into a corner. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Pink Buddha Peels An Onion

I was thinking that the lattice grid in this mixed media piece I recently finished was bamboo fencing.  It was pointed out to me that in fact it looks more like the Buddha in jail.  I agreed and symbolically and metaphorically it is kind of appropriate.  Really we are all Buddhas imprisoned by our attachments, our habitual tendencies and whatever else obscures our Buddha nature.  So maybe this image came from somewhere deeper than my conscious awareness.

In Buddhism they often use the analogy of peeling the layers of an onion for the work we do in practice.  And I am working away at another layer, tugging way at it like some little sharp toothed creature in the compost bin.  It looks a lot like some previous layers (onions are like that).  (They also make you cry sometimes.)  I am seeing how deeply my "wanting" of things colours my vision.  I am seeing it in an "Oh yeah, I'm getting that now," bang-yourself-on-the side- of the- head kind of way.  

In this specific instance (booking back to back weekends with art shows)  (and my Zen teacher always says it's individual situations that count, generalizations just don't work for practice)  I came to see the domino effect of "wanting": wanting to generate some activity, wanting to make something happen, wanting to sell some art, wanting to take control.  Was I trying to escape boredom?  Was I trying to create the life I imagined others to be living?  Did I belief that some success or outcome in the world would make me happy?  Yes, yes, and yes.  Also let me qualify here that this action that was not right for me might be fine for someone else.  For me it fed into an deeply ingrained habitual tendency.

This wanting tipped a domino that rippled perfectly down the line, as dominoes do, and caused some suffering(ouch those dominoes are harder than you think!).  As I looked back at what I'd done (hindsight can be a wonderful teacher when we're willing to sit in his class) I could see not only what I'd done on this occasion (not choose carefully, not think about timing, imagine how things should go) but see the pattern stretching back in other situations in my life.  It was sobering and instructive.  

What I was really reminded of was the best way to live my life.  It seems a little clearer, a little less confusing from this side of the domino pile.  It consists of living from my true self, my inner knowing.  How do I do this?  Well it requires some patience which is not always a strong point of mine.  It requires me to really contemplate the question "what is it good to do?"  and then not act until I feel clear about it.  As I thought about the whole process what life was really asking of me was that I go into my studio and paint, not worry so much about results and sales, just trust a little.  

In a way it is about being true to who you are, instead of listening to all the clamouring that goes on out in the world.  A phrase that has often come to me is "what is yours will come to you."  I hope that doesn't sound like magical thinking or new agey or "secretey" because it isn't meant to.  It's about letting go.  And ultimately letting go is about faith and trust.  It's about doing what needs to be done.  It's about acknowledging that ultimately this little me is not in control.  I've probably said all this before.  So if it seems like I'm repeating myself it's because I need to hear it again.  And of course it never stands against appropriate action.  It doesn't mean we should hide ourselves away in our studios and never do any marketing and promotion.  It means we should contemplate these activities as deeply as we would other aspects of our lives.  And here I use the word contemplate as opposed to "think" because it implies that deep inner knowing, the "sitting with" the question until it becomes clear.  It is not something generated by pure logic but comes from a deeper place and is a deeper way of knowing.  When we can truly connect with this place then we don't act out of desperation or wanting or fear.

I will end with a quote from John Daido Loori that appeared in the most recent issue of Shambhala Sun:  "None of the antidotes to stress -- numbing ourselves, running away, the various therapies -- will ever really get to the root of it.  We actually hold on to our stress.  It is a way of holding on to our positons, our beliefs, our sense of being right -- our self.    In that tightness and rigidity, the body cannot deal with it and the mind cannot deal with it.  We suffer because we will not let go."

Friday, May 1, 2009

In the Company Of Confusion

This little mixed media piece sold at my art sale last weekend but I've been thinking about it.  The text on it came from an old Shambhala Sun and as I cut out bits, I read some.  One thing that seemed to linger on was the comment that "until we are enlightened we are subject to a lot of confusion" (or delusion if you prefer that term), that confusion is a common human state.  

That resonated with me.  It's one of those things I like to think of as the good news and the bad news all rolled into one.  It's good news because it reminds me that I am not alone in my confusion because sometimes I'm so confused I think I'm the only one that's confused.  Sheesh, that's confusing!  Would someone please just hit me with the enlightenment stick.  And well the bad news is that confusion can feel pretty unsettling, like a little ball of chaos rumbling around inside you, maybe how you'd feel if you'd just eaten the spiritual version of a deep fried mars bar?  And I think the reason this comment on confusion resonates is I see it's truth in my daily life.

I see the truth of it because as impermanence would have it, the confusion finally just lifts and I get a little clearer .  Or at least I think I do.  I get to look back and say, ah I get it now.  Right now I can look back and say that several weeks ago I got carried away and planned more than is sensible for me.  I was driven by the desire to make things happen, so much so that I wasn't very clear.  I wanted this and I wanted that.  I wanted action and excitement and I was going to make those art sales happen!  So I buttoned up my  I-can-make this-happen coat and plunged head long into the wind storm of want.  I learned that desire and the belief that we are in control create a pretty foggy landscape, one that's easy to lose your way in.  And it offered me a little lesson.  And to my credit I was willing to stop at the fork in the road without having to get rear-ended or fall off a cliff.

So it's been an odd week.  A number of things have happened that do not necessarily please the little self and I find when they pile up one on top of the other very quickly, that's the best time to see the  unreality, the foolishness, the folly of the self.  And as my Zen teacher would say this chips away at the little self.  In fact I'm sure I saw a little piece of self flying off this morning as I sat.  That was the image that came to me, a little shard of self debris flew off into space.  I'm sure it's orbiting some distant planet by now.  But enough imaginary space games for now.

It was so interesting to watch ME TV this week and see the unrest and disappointment stirred by not getting what I want, by having my plans thwarted.  Ah desire, how sticky.  In my head I know it but ....  I could watch that bummed out feeling come and go, come and go.  Until finally it just went, gone today, carried off by time and perhaps the sunshine, perhaps the change in activity.  It's one of those mysteries really.  It didn't go away because I willed it to go away.  It went away on it's own time lines.  Again reminding me of the amazing fact that all I need to do is my part and let go of peeking around the corner checking for results.  We can't make "feelings" go away.  That doesn't mean we should wallow, of course.  It means sometimes we spend time in the company of feelings that are uncomfortable (think of them as a certain type of house guest).   We breathe and stay present and squirm some, feel where it resides in our body.  And this takes courage.  And I can't say I can do this well or consistently, but I am willing to try.  It's kind of like that old saying "we don't know when we're enlightened but we know when we're not."   So feelings of equanimity and groundedness have returned and I appreciate their company more than ever.  In fact I think I will set out a little vase of flowers and some towels and turn down the covers for them.  I hope they stay a while.