Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Dalai Lama In The Living Room

Recently I invited the Dalai Lama to come sit on the couch in my living room. He looks right at home there, don't you think? Blends right in and all, just what you'd think the Dalai Lama would do. Serene, at home, reflective.

You'd think I might have had a few intelligent questions for him. Maybe even a cup of tea. Well if you thought that you'd be wrong. But he's a patient guy and he just waited out my performance anxiety. OMG what will I ask him now that I have a chance?

When I finally settled I asked, "what is this anxiety all about? Why do I get anxious about the same old things over and over? Isn't that the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? You'd think I'd learn? What can I do about this? He looked at me quietly and deeply. I felt a great sense of peace emanating from him. He was apparently okay with my anxiety.

And I wondered, "why is it so hard to just accept things as they are? How do we do that? How can I work on acceptance?" So many times a day I see myself wishing in small and large ways that things were different, silently (or not so silently) rejecting things as they are. I wish it were sunny today, I wish my health was better. Sadness and concern for natural disasters and seemingly dangerous political unrest in the world, and so on and so on. It was obvious from his stillness that acceptance filled his heart, concern was in his eyes, yet the corners of his mouth were swept upward.

I asked him, "why is it so hard to be present for long swaths of time?" He smiled that serene smile that steals your heart and empties your mind and simply modeled loving presence for me. Wise teacher. I realized he has been practicing since he was a young boy and many previous life times. I was encouraged by that.

"What is the best way to make a contribution to this world?" Might as well ask the big questions, and the personal now that I've got him here, I thought. He looked thoughtful and centred, with that deep sense of wisdom and gentle strength he exudes. This is what he brings to the world, I thought. This is why he is loved wherever he goes. He didn't answer because he has faith in me that I can answer this question for myself, I thought. Is that not the supreme vote of confidence. I sat a little taller in my chair.

And the questions went on like this for sometime. We spent a lovely, contemplative afternoon together. I was uplifted by his warm, easy presence, eased and calmed by his natural sense of equanimity and inspired by his wisdom. It's not everyday you get to have the Dalai Lama sit in your living room. What would you ask him, if you had the chance?

Friday, March 25, 2011

Of Spring & Sun & Skunk Cabbage

There is nothing that reminds me more of anicca (imperm anence) at this time of year than the weather. Lots of grey and wet on the west coast this winter, so when the sun shone Wednesday we knew just what we needed to do. We tied on our hiking boots and went in search of the waterfall that we've heard so much about. Just down the road, you'll hear it at this time of year, we'd been told.

There is nothing quite so restorative as a walk in nature, a place where it is easy to "just be", a place to slow down and experience a contemplative state of mind. Too often we forget these simple pleasures, the smell of outdoor air, the feel of our muscles as we walk, a little bird song, the sound of a woodpecker working away on a dead tree.

And when the sun has been MIA for some time, as it
seems to have been this winter, we really notice our
appreciation for the small pleasures of it's return(like a good friend who has been on a long holiday). So we savoured the warmth of it on our backs, silently admired the pleasing way it filtered through the trees, the way it lifted our spirits with it's simple presence. This week it was one of the things to mention when you chatted with people. Did you get to enjoy that sunshine on Wednesday? Someone did qi gong outside, someone else picked nettles for pesto with her kids. It was an occasion for varied and delicious celebration.

So here is a little taste of Spring emerging on the coast. In my mind there is no colour as divine as Spring green, the lusciousness of the deep moss that has thrived in the winter rains, that incredible pungent, startling green that is the calling card of Spring.

A little skunk cabbage for your olfactory delight. What, no smell on blogger? It's like a little forest glade of skunks, really. How could something so striking and beautiful smell, so, well, stinky? Nature offers us another koan.

And there it was finally after a few over anxious false leads, once along a stream that at first, seemed promising but held no waterfall. Another trail off the road led to a tiny snag in the creek but no waterfall. A little like spiritual practice, don't you think? Sometimes we start following a trail that just leads off into the woods. If we're persistent and go back to the road we might just find what we're looking for.

And how is Spring emerging in your part of the world? Spiritual thaw and blossoming or just the good old smell of the earth ready to welcome new life?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Self Confidence And No Self?

I am taking an energy healing course and there is a meditation on the heart centre which lists the attributes of the heart: compassion, harmony, healing presence and unconditional love. The meditation feels a lot like metta or loving kindness practice. It feels nourishing, like filling up a well. I feel a bit like a sponge soaking up the feelings of compassion, harmony, healing and love. It feels like when the sponge is full, I can squeeze it and a wonderful warm liquid will trickle out like golden drops of elixir into the world.

Over at Peter's monkey mind today, he asks the question, why do we continue to tell ourselves stories that are unhelpful and unkind, stories that perhaps have been told to us or we have come to believe on our own.

In the west it seems our habit is to find ourselves lacking; never quite measuring up. It is the rare bird that appreciates their strengths and exudes a healthy self confidence (as opposed to a puffed up ego based confidence). When the Dalai Lama was once asked about how to deal with feelings of self loathing, he required a lengthy explanation of what that was. When he finally understood what was meant, he emphatically said something like, "No, this is wrong," quite forcefully. Such feelings apparently don't exist in Tibetan culture.

There are many teachers that remind us of how important a healthy self confidence is (Tarthang Tulku, Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche). But I hear you wondering out loud about this, "so if there is no self, (which is one of the tenets of Buddhism) what's this about becoming self confident? So in my understanding of the examination of self, it is not that "self" doesn't exist at all, but that it is not fixed and is always moving and changing, and so doesn't exist in any inherent or fixed way. And on the way to our personal discovery of this ethereal, flimsy, hole filled self, we need to have confidence in the little self, the every day person. We need to nourish this being that navigates the world, to give our being the courage and enthusiasm for this life and our practice, so that we can wake up and contribute to this world in helpful and meaningful ways.

Our job is to wake up and use our gifts fully because no one has the gifts you have and can offer to the world in your unique and interesting way. This is self confidence, the ability to see clearly, to keep on keeping on, and to have faith in our lives and those around us. We are here to join hands in this human journey and pull each other up when we need pulling and offer a hand to dance sometimes.

So, it is Spring, a time of new beginnings, a good time to nourish the seeds of new habits. This unruly mind needs weeding and then the planting of wholesome crops. So why not look inside and discover the riches there. Begin each day by telling yourself about them. Encourage yourself, offer uplifting words to yourself and you may find the well filling up and spilling out in to the world in ways that cultivate growth and nourish in weird and wonderful manners. And please, don't forget to put me on your dance card.

Friday, March 18, 2011

She Who Hears The Cries Of The World

I received a wonderful treat in the mail today, a White Tara With Deer" painting by friend and amazing artist, Lasha Mutual who is working her way toward 108 White Tara paintings. Sharing our Buddhist practice and art, we decided to do a little trade. The piece is exquisite, full of delicious detail. Someone has called her a modern, Canadian Thangka painter and I think this is quite apt. I even got a sneak preview of her beautiful paintings as a "Tara Deck", an amazing presentation for her paintings.

I have been turning this lovely Tara into Goldilocks, taking her around to try every room in the house. She has not complained once about the porridge or the chairs. I am like a kid with a new toy. I am reminded of my daughter as a small child, who loved some new running shoes so much, they needed to sit at the end of the bed at night! (Tara is a bit too delicate for that and I fear her fate in this case would be quite distressing!)

Thinking about this beauty I headed off to the great library in cyberspace to read about Tara and what I found seems strangely appropriate for the world these days, making me feel doubly grateful for her presence.

The word Tara itself is derived from the root 'tri' (to cross), hence the implied meaning:' the one who enables living beings to cross the Ocean of Existence and Suffering'. Her compassion for living beings, her desire to save them from suffering, is said to be even stronger than a mother's love for her children. Suffering seems to be in great abundance around the world these days so Tara's help is needed on so many fronts.

White Tara, specifically is often referred to as the Mother of all the Buddhas. She represents the motherly aspect of compassion. Her white colour indicates purity, but also indicates that she is Truth, complete and undifferentiated.

She has seven eyes: the two usual eyes, plus an eye in the centre of her forehead and eyes in each of her hands and feet. These indicate that she sees all suffering and all cries for help in the human world using both ordinary and psychic or extraordinary means of perception. They thus symbolize the vigilance of her compassion.

May her compassion emanate out to you and to all corners of the world. And now what room will I take her to next?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why Do You Meditate, Beautiful, Rowdy Prisoner?

New little Buddha Painting

8x10 mixed media

Dropping Keys

The small man

Builds cages for everyone



While the sage,

Who has to duck his head

When the moon is low,

Keeps dropping keys all night long

For the




- Hafiz

I was out gathering keys tonight because as you all know I need as many as I can scoop up. And I like feeling beautiful and rowdy all at the same time. So kind of Hafiz to let me make a guest appearance in his poem. And the scene of my key gathering was our weekly meditation evening at Stowel Lake Farm. I love to go and slurp up the Dharma. Yes Dharma soup, and afterwards a Dharma sauna (I absorb it through my pores) then jump into a cold lake of my own making.

As I sat tonight I was aware of a sense of wide openness to everything, a stance I mostly forget to have in my everyday life. But that's okay says the wide openness, because wide openness can hold everything, even my forgetfulness. It was a refreshing feeling. That openness was okay with what happens in my studio, with the messiness of the pond outback, with my doubting mind and my awareness of it. The openness chuckled at my comparing mind, my frailties and infirmities. That wide openness was puffed full of air and space, like a bag of something buttery and salty. That glimpse of opennes was a lovely reminder of how to live, perched among the pink clouds and frog song of the evening.

In her Dharma talk, Heather reminded us that a helpful thing to do each time before we sit at home is to ask ourselves why we are sitting, what's important to us, what is it that we really value, personally. This struck me as such a great way to start a sit, because it's so easy to just go in and do our meditation, trying to be present, maybe even just going through the motions. But what if each time we sat we considered what we were aiming ourselves at. For me, the doubter, I would remind myself that faith and trust are important, that kindness and developing a real ability to listen are on my to do (or is that my to "be") list. Peace toward myself and others, an ability to relax, be at home in my body and feel at home in this world would make the list. I'm sure as I sit other things will come up, but this is my initial list. What's on your list? Why do you meditate? What is it that you value? What do you seek to cultivate?

And finally Heather reminded us that our practice is a gift we give to ourselves and the world. It struck me that this is an act of service. We are always thinking and talking in Buddhist circles of how we might serve. But isn't this the most basic form of service, our practice. It radiates out into the world in so many ways, some of them tiny and seemingly unimportant, like when we pick up an ant and carry this small being to the door. Or when we practice the same acts of non-violence to ourselves and those around us (maybe even escorting them to the metaphorical door) Okay, doubt, I'm gonna wrap you in a tissue and put you outside now. Remember when I used to stomp on you with my shoe and then flush you down the toilet? Kindness and tolerance takes many forms. And a lot of it has to do with intention. Which brings us back to why we sit? What is our intention?

Monday, March 14, 2011

Earth Martinis - Shaken & Stirred

I am generally not much of a news follower but this last while it seems unavoidable: trouble in the middle east, earthquake in New Zealand, earthquake and tsunami in Japan, weird political rumblings in the US. It's not just the news media trying to drum up another drama to keep the evening news ratings up. It seems to me we are truly being shaken and stirred. Ice storms in the north east, torrential downpours here overnight, not that I'm a martini drinker, but I'm thinkin the cosmic bartender is up to something.

And as much as we try and create our little cocoons of safety we can see from these events that there really is no ground to rest on, nothing we can wrap ourselves in, except perhaps the Dharma. And the Dharma tells us that everything is changing, moving all the time, everything is impermanent. The truth at least makes the landscape navigable. And in our tiny lines of vision we really have no way of seeing the big picture. Our ability to swallow the martini, comes from, as Joko Beck, says, (and I think I've quoted this recently), "being a bigger container."

We need to be a container big enough to hold all the ingredients for the earth martini and in this work, we are called upon not prefer the cranberry martini one over the mud or dictator flavoured version. "I didn't order this, bartender, take it back." Of course we experience grief when faced with destruction and the death of thousands but it is within our ability to experience the grief and as Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, "have a strong back and a soft heart". We need to take action if it is necessary, say some prayers, dedicate the merit of our meditation, send some money, or more, if appropriate, whatever we can do.

And we need to carry on with the other flavours of the day, rather than becoming a newsicle frozen in front of the TV. There is the joy of the Bufflehead swimming on the pond, the good humour of the guys tiling the bathroom, the intermittent shafts of sunlight flooding the dirty windows between downpours. There is our livelihood. The world is always moving and shaking but mostly we are too preoccupied to notice. Sometimes it takes a really big shake to wake us up, to remind us that this life is something to be grateful for, rather than grumble about.

My tiny bit is over at my etsy shop, 50% of sales will go to earthquake relief in Japan and I will support others locally in their work. Rawsome Living Foods is donating all of their profits from their Saturday (March 19th) craft fair sales at Mahon Hall. Another islander is having a vegan bake sale on April 2nd. What flavour is your martini?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

How To Make Peace

I received this lovely little peace card from fellow blogger, Suki whose aim it is to send messages of peace out into the world one little card at a time. And the card is as beautiful as the idea. It reminded me that we change the world in tiny ways by our actions. Receiving the card brightened my day, making it I imagine brightened Suki's and might have been a meditative act. And then there is the simple pleasure of generosity.

As we are often reminded in practice, we change the world one person at a time, that person being ourselves. We are really the only person we can change and that change radiates outward into the world. We may think things like friendly chit chat at the coffee shop are small and inconsequential but what if everyone did this, all day long, might the world be a different place? Yesterday the young woman at the cash desk in the local health food store said to me: "Remember when you gave us a ride (lots of hitchhiking still happens here on the island) and we were talking about Vipassana, we went home that night and signed up to do another 10 day Goenka retreat." A simple case of we never know what the other person will do as a result of our interaction. Also a sobering reminder when our exchanges are fueled by anger or greed.

It is easy to think that sometimes our meditation practice isn't going anywhere. The mind still wanders, our early expectations about practice have been tossed aside in favour of no expectations at all. But when we look at the small differences in how we relate to the world we can see the impact practice makes on our lives. Over the years we may find we choose our words more carefully or even choose to say no words at all sometimes. Maybe we are not in such a hurry all of the time or we are kinder to our sister-in-law who drives us a bit crazy. It is the many small actions that make up our day and ultimately our lives.

In "Being Peace" Thich Nhat Hanh says: "Every day we do things, we are things, that have to do with peace. If we are aware of our lifestyle, our way of consuming, of looking at things, we will know how to make peace right in the moment we are alive, the present moment. When we pick up the Sunday newspaper, for instance, we may be aware that it is a very heavy edition, maybe three or four pounds. To print such a paper, a whole forest may be needed. When we pick up the paper, we should be aware, If we are very aware, we can do something to change the course of things"

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Dominoes of Dependent Origination

The Law of Dependent Origination is an important Buddhist concept and generally considered fairly difficult. Heck it even sounds difficult (what do all those words strung together actually mean?). But as I was reading Joseph Goldstein's, "The Experience of Insight, I was struck by his clear and simple explanation. I am not going to list the 12 links of dependent origination but I will offer up his basic simple description of it and why it is so helpful for us to "get":

"Understanding the Law of Dependent Origination, how because of one thing, something else arises, we can begin to break the chain of conditioning. When pleasant things arise, we don't cling. When unpleasant things arise, we don't condemn. When neutral things arise, we're not forgetful.... We are free to break this chain, to free ourselves from conditioned reactions. It takes a powerful mindfulness in every moment not to allow feelings to generate desire. When there's ignorance in the mind, feeling conditions desire. If there's something pleasant, we want it; something unpleasant, we desire to get rid of it. But if instead of ignorance in the mind there is wisdom and awareness, then we experience feeling but don't compulsively or habitually grasp or push away.... No longer driven on by ignorance and desire, the whole mass of suffering is brought to an end."

For me this is a lovely practical way of looking at dependent origination which can seem long and cumbersome in some people's hands. But here Goldstein manages to offer us the short course (the chapter is longer) by giving us a powerful view of our everyday behaviour, which consists of a lot of habitual grasping and pushing away. Need comfort, I'll have a latte. Fear might make me neglect making a doctor's appointment to attend to a nagging health issue. I might feel dislike for someone because they remind me of my third grade teacher who never warmed to me (reactions like this often float below our own personal radar and feel unexplained). I might feel depressed because it's been cloudy and rainy for so long.

It's often hard to see how these moment by moment feelings and thoughts add up to the subtle flavour of the day, one of minor (or major) dissatisfaction. And while it is fine to have preferences it is the strength of our clinging to them ,the feeling sense associated with them and our unconsciousness of them, that colour our world in ways we don't even notice most of the time and add up to suffering or unsatisfactoriness.

Maybe this is a simplistic way of thinking about dependent origination but if it moves us in the direction of true understanding, then it can only be helpful. When there is a large glass of water to drink, it's best to do it one sip at a time. Otherwise a lot of coughing and sputtering can ensue.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Go Forth and be SLOW

I have just completed a teleconference class that centred on "Seeking Authentic Voice" with a group of artists, all with deep spiritual underpinnings and an interest in exploring what is "authentic voice" and how do I get in touch with it. How do I grow and nurture this way of seeing and expressing that can only be born into this world through the being that lives in this skin? It has been a wonderful rich and engaging 6 weeks that has opened my mind and heart in many ways. It has tied in very nicely with a new sitting practice I have recently undertaken. It is a sign of Spring and new beginnings for me.

Both the meditation and the authentic voice exploration reminded me of how important it is to have a wise guide, how important it is to have companions on the path. In the case of meditation, after sitting for several years on my own, I am reminded how inspiring it is to hear a Dharma talk each week, to hear the stories and commentary of someone who has been sitting for many years and whose natural inclination is one of joy and delight, how much this invigorates and brings new life to my whole practice. In the artist's group our coach was a gentle guide who helped identify the wisdom and richness of each participant. In both cases I am reminded of how humans flourish with gentle, warm direction, like any living things provided with a nourishing environment, light and sustenance.

In both cases I have learned how important and helpful it is to reframe things in a positive way. I think this aspect can easily overlooked in meditation circles. This is not to negate that sometimes we have difficult emotions or experience difficult circumstances and that difficulties can stimulate growth and discovery. We are not buying a caselot of rose coloured glasses. But I am learning how helpful it is for me to reframe things in a way that supports my energy. I have recognized how easy it is for me to slip into frustration and impatience when things don't go according to my wishes (in the studio and out). By building positive energy I have seen how I can become (as Joko Beck likes to call it) "a bigger container", one that can hold all experience, the positive and the inevitable difficulties. It is all part of the process.

But by taking time to observe this process and see how to work with frustration and impatience before they overwhelm me I find they are indeed workable. It is skillful means to stop and breathe, to take a break, to work on another piece. It is important to remind myself to have faith and confidence in my inner voice, to listen when it whispers to use a Motherwell splat of paint, here or a dark line there, to follow the inner voice, instead of logic which says no, you might ruin that, no that will look silly or out of place. I still find myself putting paint on and taking it off, but without the frustration, without the judgement that I have made a mistake. It is just part of the exploration, the seeking of the mark that resonates.

Our Dharma teacher uses the nemonic of SLOW for how we might incline ourselves in our meditation and I think it applies equally to our art making.

S reminds us of steadiness. We encourage our mind to stay. Just as we want to focus our attention and stay with our breath, with our body, in the present. This is also immensely helpful in an activity, learning to be present with whatever we are working on. Then we can truly hear the whispers of the work, of the materials of our authentic voice.

L for lovingkindness or unconditional friendliness. In any endeavor it is important to be kind to ourselves, to encourage ourselves rather than find fault with what we are doing. Fault finding (as in I'm never going to get this, or whatever negative self talk is our habit) is a discouraging energy sucker. Never underestimate the power of a kind word.

O- Openness to what we experience, just a general attitude and disposition toward life and our work, be it art or mindfulness or both. Being open leads us to discoveries, to find the unexpected, the surprising, the unusual. This is what makes life rich and exciting, this is where we will discover our uniqueness. When we're open we never know what we'll find. When we're closed we are confined by the limitations of what our mind can conceive. And every one of us has experienced the power of intuition at some time or other in our lives. This openness allows us to tap into something much greater than our little selves.

W for wonder or curiosity, what better attitude to have toward all aspects of our life, the sense of wonder that small children often bring to a situation, of sheer astonishment and delight (as in I'm the first person to have seen inside this peanut!)

So go forth and be SLOW! Listen for the quiet building of your authentic voice in all that you do. Have faith and confidence in what may start as a delicate whisper. Mine is often barely audible, and I am a bit like a deaf person, it sometimes needs to repeat itself over and over. But like any good gardener, I plan to nourish it and watch for new shoots. What better thing to do as we head into Spring and the season of cultivation?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

"We See The World As We Are"

"We see the world not as it is but as we are" Someone made this comment at the second day long of our intro to Vipassana/ Insight meditation workshop. This is something that rings so true for me these days and something I am paying a lot of attention to.

How could it be otherwise? Even scientists will tell you that there is no such thing as objectivity. Every researcher influences the outcome of her research. Even by the very questions we ask, we influence the results, the information we uncover. And of course this speaks to the unfathomable connection between everything, large or small. A big tenet of Buddhism is, "we are all connected". Someone said, and I love this way of expressing it, something to the effect, "tug on one small thing in this world and you will find everything is attached", kind of like the cosmic thread in our universal picnic cloth.

But I digress. I think I love this comment about "seeing things as we are" because it reminds me that if I change how I think, I can change how I see the world. This is another tenet of Buddhism, "we can change". We can become more compassionate, more relaxed, more friendly to ourselves and others. There is such a huge field for us to play in here. We are not our thoughts, not even a collection of them. The mind is simply a sense organ, sensing thought in the same way your nose detects scents. Where do our thoughts come from? Good question. All 72,000 if them that we are supposed to have in a day.

By working with our minds we can nourish new ways of seeing the world. When people talk about fate or karma, this is where the very fixed view falls apart. We create karma, we come here with certain karmic residue, but by our actions, by our intention we can work with our lives. We are not victims, we are co-creators of our world (no rose coloured glasses here kids, I am not getting all new agey on you).

So I am loving my new Vipassana training which is helping me focus on, well focusing, bringing intention and a fresh presence to my meditation, to the minute details of my life. I love the metta practice which I have never done before. It is like eating this wonderfully nourishing and sweetly, delicious meal. Wish yourself well, wish others well. Does this sound hokey, or silly or like some overlay? Try it. Try repeating. May I be relaxed and content. May I be open and spacious. May I be healthy and strong. This is a re-educating of the mind that says, "man this day sucks" and lists all the things that didn't work out.

It's easy to see the relation between what we put in our mouths and how our body feels but how about what we fill our minds with. If you're like me it's easy to get hung up in a litany of small grumbles, about the weather or the neighbour or the driver who cut us off, or the friend whose neglected us, the family member who irritates us. It takes intention for most of us to see the world differently but I tell you it is worth every bit of effort. The sweetness of the day awaits you. Unwrap it and pop it into the lips of your awareness.