Monday, April 26, 2010

Zen Master Clothes Line

The other day my new and dearly beloved clothes line and I were having a little disagreement. Somehow the plastic line came off the metal pulley causing it not to work. This became the occasion for a little Dharma teaching; me as somewhat unwilling student and clothes line as Zen master.

I thought I would just quickly right the problem and slip the line back on the metal pulley and get on with things. I tried to do this in the easiest and quickest manner possible, not paying that much attention. "Let's get this done, should be easy."

First try entailed a fair bit of struggling and resulted in a product where the lines were crossed. At that point I was getting a little testy. The project seemed to require more strength than I had in my hands and I was getting tired of this. After a fair bit of gnashing and wrangling I realized that my frustration was nothing more than desire, wanting things to be my way. Oh and by the way they should be easy! It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining, I was outside, yet I was annoyed and frustrated. When the truth struck me upside the head (Zen masters like to give a little wack when necessary) I decided to pause, take a breath and examine things from another angle. How did the pulley and line fit together? And maybe it just required a little concentrated attention, some awareness perhaps.

Sure enough in a minute or two I had it fixed. And I could see that my frustration was nothing more than desire sporting a different outfit. It seemed there were two kinds of frustration, one that is very much like that aggressive, shouting anger. How dare this happen? What a pain. I have better things to do. And the whiney depressed defeated frustration that says I'm never going to get this fixed. Why doesn't someone just come rescue poor me. I'm not strong enough for this task.

So that was how Zen Master Clothes Line offered up the Dharma for the day. I apparently have a thing for clothes lines. This little collage above is from a very old series called "Life On The Line" comprised of many scenarios on clothes lines, weddings, baby things, bears, gardening accoutrements, underwear, dogs, cats, even hockey things. You're getting the picture. And by the way, does anyone know how to use the little pulley contraption that connects the two lines?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Thousand Faces of the Day

This morning I got up at 5 and lit the wood stove. It feels vaguely remenisent of camping. Although it is charming and the heat has a lovely dry quality I have mixed feelings about the stove. Almost everyone on the islands has a wood stove which comes in handy during the power outages that are part of winter here. Trees, wind, rain, not too surprising. A recipe for firewood.

The stove is pretty much standard in island homes and is used either has a primary or secondary heat source. But doesn't the use of wood contribute to the depletion of the ozone layer? It feels like a guilty pleasure as I take the chill off the morning. Is electric heat any more or less environmentally friendly? I know a lot of the wood used in the stoves is windfall or scrub so islanders are not wacking down forests of doug fir for our heating pleasure. But I am thinking about the smoke wafting its way skyward.

The radishes we planted last week are poking their cute little green heads up and the lettuce transplants are enjoying the rain that has been falling for the last few days. We have been feasting on what's left of the winter veggies in the garden, enjoying the 20 ft diet. Just outside our door is kale, cauliflower, parsley, purple sprouting broccoli, cilantro and onions for our dining pleasure. The asparagus are still only poking their heads up just a little. We have planted more food and watch anxiously for its debut.

We are living without TV here. It used to be a big fall back for me in the evening. If I was tired or lonely the TV was easy company. I love the home & garden design shows, a personal addiction. But there was a vaguely unsatisfying element to it, kind of like eating junk food; tastes good, feels bad. Instead of me consuming the junk food, my evenings were consumed by the glow of the TV screen. I'm doing the cold turkey here. At first I was so tired that I'd fall asleep on the couch cradling a book. I have also noticed that as I sit and watch the darkening landscape a feeling of melancholy, of antstyness settles on me. Some of the feeling I avoided in my TV watching? Is it universally human to feel a bit dark as the earth darkens or is it peculiar to my particular karmic package? I notice this feeling as the light dims and then when the dark sets and I can no longer see the landscape, my mood shifts. If I had no electricity I'd probably head off to bed. But I'm not that back to nature yet.

So we are living here a little closer to the earth, closer to the rhythm of the day, more connected to the outdoors. I get to watch the thousand faces of the day, how the clouds change and the fog and rain move in and out, how it can be blue skied at 6 am and raining by noon. A front row seat for the impermanence show. The shifting moving nature of the weather and how it affects landscape and moods is ever apparent. And out the picture window it looks like a Tony Onley painting. I don't think anyone has captured this coastal landscape in the brilliant way he did, ethereal and dreamy and yet true to form.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

No Man Is An Island On An Island

I am in the process of becoming "islandized" since we moved to Salt Spring just over a week ago. Yesterday I decided to gather some nettles and make nettle soup (with a little help from google). When I saw some nettles growing by the road (a little travelled one) I remembered gathering them with a friend years ago. It made me feel very islandish to serve the bright green soup.

And I am learning to wave. When someone passes you in the car they give a little wave (as in hi neighbour). This is especially apparent on the smaller, less travelled roads. And I'm enjoying the good natured chit chat that goes on everywhere, at the grocery store, at the lumber yard. And more than one island car sports a bumper sticker that says, "Relax, it's not the mainland."

We have even picked up hitch hikers several times, once a young couple heading up the road in the direction of our house and then a young woman heading towards town. It's been a long time since we picked up hitch hikers but here on the island it seems part of what happens. On a quiet stretch of road with spotty public transport it seems almost unkind to pass by perfectly harmless looking folks when your back seat is empty.

And then of course there are the things that are simply rural, not necessarily island things; the birds and the deer, the veg from the garden and the glorious clothesline you see pictured here. My island experiences made me think of a post over at 108 Zen books about the help of sentient and insentient beings, those seen and unseen. This is sinking in as I observe and participate in island life. It is easier to see our connections when you pick up the young couple who lives down the road, when you partake of some spring nettles or when strangers wave at you as if they were old friends.

I am reading a book called "Zen Architecture - The Building Process As Practice" by Paul Discoe. In the foreword Reb Anderson says "... although it may appear that you and I and Paul Discoe can produce something on our own, that is just a deeply entrenched delusion.... Although it may not be apparent, all great artists have coworkers, living and nonliving.... everything that exists does so interdependently."

So maybe I needed to come to an island to learn "that no man is an island." Is that you waving over there?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dart To The Heart

This piece was almost finished before I packed it away several months ago. There was something not quite finished about the face. And so yesterday I took it out of its paper and got out the eye shadow & the blush (just kidding), added a little more blue to the sky, green to the ground. It's called "Dart To The Heart" and it's a sister painting to "What The Buddha Sewed". Adding finishing touches was a nice way to ease back into work instead of having to stare down a blank canvas as the first act.

I am learning to be kinder to myself, to pay more attention to inner inclinations. What better time to shed the old snakeskin of habitual behaviour? What better time to disconnect service to the little voice that tells me I should be doing this or that, in this way or that way? It's true I didn't need to move house to leave behind old habits but why not use this occasion intentionally? I think that concrete physical acts can offer an opportunity if we employ them. In a way it's not that different from ritual. We light some incense at the beginning of meditation. An outward physical act connects to the inner act.

It's about the mind, really and how we use it. The mind is a little power substation that can offer light if we use it wisely. And I am well aware from experience that it can do some high voltage damage if we let it course through the lines unchecked. But enough of this high wire stuff, soon I'll be joining the circus.

And so when I think about "Dart To The Heart" I think about the Buddhist idea that the first dart is some pain we might experience, but we add the second dart by thinking about it in an unhelpful way, by obsessing or focusing on it. It reminds me of something RM Jiyu Kennet said, "The mind makes a good servant but not a very good master." I wonder if the mind does room service and laundry?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Pointing Toward Harmony

I love setting up house, it's kind of like creating a collage. You work with colour and texture and form, moving pieces around until they work together in some harmonious way. You work with couches and chairs and tables and Buddhas and bowls instead of paint and paper and canvas.

I don't even mind unpacking boxes. It's the preparatory work, like cutting the bits of paper or painting the ground. It doesn't seem like work to me, it's energizing, creating this sense of home; a place for spirit to live. And so that's what this week has held. A week of settling in, enjoying some sunshine, helping the Buddhas find their proper homes, finding the right wall for each painting.

And then there was the joy of hanging clothes outside on the clothes line attached to a giant fir tree. I swear clothes get brighter and cleaner just from hanging out in this lovely clean air (this is a paid advert brought to you by a bit of rope and some sunshine). And there was the sheer delight of digging in the dirt and planting lettuce and radishes, some parsley and spinach and radicchio and taking the kilometer walk down the gravel road to the mailbox. I can feel my spirit breathe a sigh as it settles into this sheltered, rural spot with forest on one side, orchard trees and straw covered garden beds on another, and a stretch of panoramic ocean view in front. It recognizes home.

And where is the Dharma in all of this? I think it is about the many steps it can take to get closer to some goal that's in your heart. I can look back and see the many mundane steps it took to get here, the painting and cleaning and the ups and downs of house selling and packing. But mostly it's about honouring the call of the heart, doing what may not always seem logical or safe but doing it anyway. And somehow as you take the mundane, daily steps, you move closer to the heart's calling. Sometimes it's clear what the next step is and some days clouds cover the horizon. Some days you need to adjust your course around fallen trees and downed power lines and sometimes you just need to sit still and wait for the direction to make itself clear.

And so gradually it becomes clear at the gut level that we can never really know what's around the next corner but we have faith and trust that life is unfolding as it should. And there is always that sign in our heart pointing us toward harmony.

Monday, April 5, 2010


I am thinking about "trans itions" tonight as I head into the last few days as a pro fessional wanderer. It seems there is always an edginess to these times of change, moving from one activity to another. The transition can be as simple as turning off the television or getting up from the dinner table. There is that feeling of "what next". Or our transition might be as final as our last breath in this life. In truth we are always moving into the next unknown moment.

And if we pause we will find the space between one activity and the next. Do we notice it? Do we contemplate it? Do we approach it with awareness? Or are we drawn by discomfort and fear into some habitual reaction or self comforting behaviour? Do we slide into the next moment without noticing? Whoops how did I get here?

These times of subtle or major changes are opportunities. We can make our choices with awareness and care or we can slide or grab or float into the next phase of the day, of our life. Transitions can be fraught with danger and are always filled with possibility. And one time we notice, the next time we don't.

So the me of the sense world is cramming in every last drop of Portlandian goodness before I return to a quieter life. I have had coffee and a treat at Sweet Pea's vegan bakery and checked out the shelves of "Food Fight" the vegan grocery store next door. I have discovered the delicious Townshends Kombucha and visited the brimming shelves of Powell's Bookstore and been tickled by the eclectic art supplies at "Collage" on Alberta St. I have admired Portland's ability to mix wonderful modern architecture with an eclectic mix of old. I love the little neighbourhoods with high streets of shops and restaurants that thrive here. There is a creative, vibrant heart to this city. I imagine that everybody here has their finger in some creative pot, owns a mac and never eats at home.

And as I plan the last list of things to see and do I also look forward to unpacking the car, moving into a new place to live and a life that doesn't consist of getting in the car every few days and driving for hours. And I know that with the transition there will be some sense of antsyness when the movement stops, that feeling of being a bit lost, of trying to figure out what to do next. There will be the urge to comfort myself with some habitual behaviour rather than to feel the discomfort of the transition. At least that is what I imagine as I get ready to move into the next part of my life.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Stranger In A Strange Land

Today reading Peter's post over at Monkey mind I was reminded of what practice is really all about for me. It's about getting acquainted with my strange little self, seeing what I get up to. (egads I'm hanging out with that rusty moose again.) Peter was talking about his feelings of awkwardness when faced with the homeless folks in his neighbourhood.

And isn't that it, being brave and honest enough to see our own awkwardness, our stinginess, our acts of self protection? On one level, it's personal. Yes this is what I do, but on another level it is simply the human condition, because if I do it chances are you do too (I have seen you with the rusty moose). So this confession of awkwardness speaks to us.

And isn't the first act of doing something differently, to see with clarity what we do now, in this moment? Only then can we perhaps become a little kinder (even to ourselves) a little more patient, a little more forgiving. It's not like we're on some self improvement quest (10 steps to a nicer me! ) In fact that's not me with the moose. I am the prickly cactus in the background. Some days I am the one dimensional white headed woman, too tall to fit through the blue door?)

Self improvement accepts the fact that we want to strengthen that little self when in fact what we are aiming for is to loosen the grip of the little self, to not accept that modern day fairy tale that we are the centre of the universe. Can we imagine that the needs and wishes of that homeless person are as important as our own?

And why do we feel awkward when we meet homeless folks, anyway? (or any folks at all?) Are we faced with our own lack of control? Are we reminded that one day we will have to give up the comfort we cling to, our homes, our loved ones, our bodies? Do these folks remind us that we are not who we like to think we are? Are they the ghosts of groundlessness? Are they the opposite of order and perfection that our modern world is always selling us? Whiter teeth, trendier clothes, a better address, won't those settle that 'anxious quiver of being' (Ezra Bayda's term)? And perhaps they pose the question: where is our true home?