Monday, August 22, 2011

Squirrel Nutkin Chews On The Dharma

Here's a photo of Squirrel Nutkin chewing on the Dharma.  You remember that Beatrix Potter tale from your childhood, don't you? No?  Well let me refresh your memory.  It goes like this.  The heroine goes on retreat to a lovely idyllic spot, almost as nice as heaven, in a rural, pastoral sort of way.

Silently she is stalked by her own mind.  Fur starts to fly and she finds she is more than a little nutty.  But enter stage right, the bright fairy of mindfulness.  She leads said heroine over to a majestic tree with wide branches and deep roots that holds all the nuttiness with great love and kindness.  When the sun shines, squirrel nutkin notices that these hard little nuts are all transparent.  At this point our heroine treks over to the Dharma kitchen to chew on some delicious lemon poppyseed cake with strawberry-blueberry sauce, savouring it deeply and realizing it is not all that different from the nuts on the tree.

So that is the fairy tale version of my 7 day silent retreat.  If you prefer a description in more worldy terms I can say that this comment by Charlotte Joko Beck is very apt: "With unfailing kindness, your life always presents what you need to learn.  Whether you stay home or work in an office or whatever, the next teacher is going to pop right up."

I met some demons along the way, predictable, familiar demons, the ones that have to do with fear and personal health.  My retreat demons took me on a ferry ride to see my doctor and naturopath.  There were twists and turns in a little drama that had someone suggesting I might have shingles on my eye which needed medical attention.  My Dharma journey veered right out of the retreat grounds proving the path is everywhere and anywhere.  In the end I got to stare fear in the eye (no foolish pun intended).  I didn't have shingles and got to see the folly of so much worry and fear.  I learned a bit of steadiness and finally got how much nightmares need staring in the eye.  Hmm, maybe this eye thing was on to something??

We had the wonderful Dharma guidance of Gil Fronsdal who was filled with gentleness and humour and the ability to transmit the Dharma in a precise and steady way.  He had some great memorable lines and stories.  When I shed some tears he said he knew a woman who cried for 7 days on a retreat.  I also loved this line in reference to our need for acceptance, an issue I met along the way:  "They'll criticize you when you don't talk enough, they'll criticize you when you talk too much and they'll criticize you when you talk just the right amount." - The Buddha

He invited us, one morning, to look at the underlying attitude we have to life, the one that hovers just below the surface, the one we hardly notice.  As I sat there in stillness I could see my attitude of fear, of resistance, of holding back.  It was enough to make you weep (which I did).  This was a 2 kleenex box retreat!.

In an evening Dharma talk he told a longish story about Japanese soldiers in the Philipines who stayed in the forest long after the war was over.  When they were discovered, high Japanese officials were sent in to go tell them the war was over and thank them for their service.  Just before they boarded the boat home, they were told the war had been over for 25 years.  Gil suggested we do the same for our fears, our anxieties, our habitual tendencies that no longer serve us well.

The retreat offered detailed instruction on mindfulness and concentration practice and lots of time to practice it in the company of other dedicated practitioners.  It was a wonderful opportunity to meet demons, chew on  things, see through other things and sink deep into the spiritual being who is having this human experience.

Friday, August 12, 2011

"Choose A Nice Road"

Care- Full Buddha 12"x 24"
"When an artist or sculptor creates a picture or a statue of Buddha sitting upon a lotus flower, it is not just to express his reverence towards the Buddha.  The artist must above all want to show the Buddha's state of mind as he sits: The state of complete peace, complete bliss." - Thich Nhat Hanh from "A Guide to Walking Meditation" Yes, this is it, it is to show what is possible for all of us.  I needed to be reminded of why I am drawn to do these paintings.  It often doesn't make that much sense to me because my real love is abstract work. I am not really a figurative painter.  So secret revealed by Thich Nhat Hanh!

 I pulled out this little book for 2 reasons, one because I have been following the progress of the "Open Mind, Open Heart" Retreat at UBC in Vancouver and secondly because I head off on a 7 day  meditation retreat of my own tomorrow.  As walking meditation will follow most sitting periods it was really nice to read Thay's simple and enticing words on walking meditation.  He says things like, " If I had the Buddha's eyes and could see through everything, I could discern the marks of worry and sorrow you leave in your footprints after you pass, like the scientist who can detect tiny living beings in a drop of pond water with a microscope.  Walk so that your footprints bear only the marks of peaceful joy and complete freedom. "

And perhaps I can entice you to join me in a little walking meditation this week.  Perhaps these words of Thay's will call to you: " Choose a nice road for your practice, along the shore of a river, in a park, on the flat roof of a building, in the woods, or along a bamboo fence.  Such places are ideal, but they are not essential.  I know there are people who practice walking meditation in reformation camps, even in small prison cells."

Twice this week I have been reminded by spiritual teacher's talks that practice should not only lead us to joy and ease but joy and ease should be present when we sit in meditation, when we practice.  The reminder is a call to give up effort which drains energy and aim for ease.  This is such a good reminder for me as I head into retreat.  Sometimes I have the feeling I need to "work" hard to be present, that what comes up will be painful and difficult, demons of all manner, but here is the reminder to relax into it.  Thich Nhat Hanh reminded participants to embrace their pain, but also that they can change the channel on habitual thinking, that releasing tension in the body will ease physical pain.  So it is with these thoughts that I head off on my week's retreat.   Happy walking and writing and painting.  I look forward to seeing what you've been up to when I return!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Treasures of the Self

Another little shot of the Zen garden in progress
In a comment on my last post, Dharma blogger extraordinaire 108zenbooks said something like "even in the harshness, I feel your gentleness".  This got me thinking.  Since that post was about the heavy club of judgment we often wield, I wondered about the flip side of that stick; appreciation. My own gentleness, hmm, appreciate that??

While we are often quick to cite our shortcomings and could easily whip off a long list of them in a blink, we don't often give much attention to our strengths or positive qualities.  Have you ever been at a workshop where people are asked to name their positive qualities or strengths?  Things get very uncomfortable and quiet.

To cite the bleeding obvious, as Basil from Fawlty Towers might say, I am not talking about ego here.  But you knew that, even if you've never seen Fawlty Towers (poor you!).  We are not puffing ourselves up here like peacocks, filling ourselves with false confidence, but contemplating the unique qualities  and gifts we came here with.  Because we are individuals, with our particular karma, we carry with us unique gifts.  Lynette's comments reminded me that one of my qualities is indeed gentleness.  I often see this as some sort of shortcoming and that would be judgmental fairy waving it's dark little wand.  And I think each personality trait (can I call it that?) has it's flip side.  Tenacity can also manifest as stubborness.  Gentleness can morph into timidity.

But I think as part of our practice we need to develop an inner confidence, one that we develop based on clarity and intuitive knowing of our relative self.  This is where our practice begins.  Without loving and appreciating our little self, we can never hope to move outside of it and experience the dropping of boundaries and seeing the bigger picture of "no self". We need to appreciate and value this "little self" first.  It can only be an aid to our practice because it takes courage to do this work, to travel this path, to know that we are fine just the way we are and we can do better.

Bill Plotkin, from the Environmental Buddhist site says, "Each of us is born with a treasure, an essence, a seed of quiescent potential, secreted for safekeeping in the center of our being. This treasure, personal quality, power, talent, or gift (or set of such qualities) is ours to develop, embody, and offer to our communities through acts of service -- our contribution to a more diverse, vital, and evolved world. Our personal destiny is to become that treasure through our actions..."

What are your gifts that you came here to explore and share?

Friday, August 5, 2011

A Malpractice Suit

Here's the beginning of my Japanese style garden

"We can make the light of mindfulness a searchlight for encroaching evil that we imagine dwells within us; this is what the habit-mind often does.  Or we can make this mindfulness the light of lovingkindness, gentle and hospitable.  Experience can be known and met warmly.  Dwelling in the glow of relaxed, loving acceptance, the chill is warmed, the strain unwrenched, the grasping released." -  from Insight Dialogue by Gregory Kramer

When I read this the other night it reminded me of something I've been doing a lot of lately.  "Mindfulness", just being aware of what is, has been getting tangled up with judgment.  Now judgment being a strong contender in the ring, it tends to go quite a few rounds and bashes me upside the head good many times before I stop wobbling around. So instead of dispassionately seeing what my mind habitually gets up to, I have been holding what I observe, against myself.  "Oh, there's fear, (not again, I'm so tired of this) and there's timidity (I need to stop being like that.) and the commentary continues.  Instead of using practice to grow wisdom, my practice can easily become just another measuring stick that I hold up for myself.  "Officer, arrest that woman for malpractice."

A little close up ( you need a break from all that reading)

The mind is a crafty conniver.  It can rework anything into it's favourite flavour, even if the flavour is nasty, and chewy and bitter.  The Dalai Lama was surprised to hear that Westerners often feel "not good enough".  And apparently we will use just about anything, including our Dharma practice, to fulfill this prophecy.  But noticing what we're up to is the point at which we kick judgment out of the ring on a technicality.  He was never invited to this event in the first place.  Maybe we don't actually kick him out, he just slinks away like a monster in a nightmare, when we turn to look at him.

And so this is  where my practice has been lately.  It's a strange little macrame hanger that I've been using to tighten the noose.
Here's me wondering if I should have bought a houseboat instead

And the antidote is to lighten up a little, to back off on the intensity, to relax the body and remember that the point of practice is not to "fix" anything.  The point of practice is to learn how to just be, to grow in wisdom and compassion and kindness and that starts with our inner life.  Maybe we need to ask ourselves first, "am I kinder to myself than I was 5 years ago, more compassionate, less angry?  Because if we can't offer that to ourselves, chances are we can't offer it to anyone else.  "Self, are you listening?"  "I knew you were."