Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Uncomfortable silence as a deutero-truth

Last fall I flew to Colorado to take a Miksang photography workshop. Miksang is a Tibetan word that translates as ‘Good Eye’, and is based on the Shambhala and Dharma Art teachings of the late meditation master, artist, and scholar Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.

The instructors, Michael and Julie, did a wonderful job of teaching me to see in a new way: I came back with lots of fresh and exciting images, and their way of seeing continues to inform my work. This image, for example, which I shot on Shaw last week, would be a classic Miksang piece: very simple, strong contrasts, conveying a sense of stillness...

And of course it would be perfect for that Patterns exhibit that's coming up in November. But the truth is, well -- I don't actually like it all that much. At least, not in its current state (there's always the chance I could play with it in Photoshop and discover some hidden potential).

And that's the part of being an artist that can be challenging: because coming up with something that's unique, technically and compositionally good isn't really enough. It needs to have soul, and something of the artist in it as well. And though I love this curtain, and this old rotary auction chair, and the way the sun filters through the venetian blinds to add another layer of pattern and texture to the curtain... well, it still doesn't quite do it for me.

But perhaps that's because I've been conditioned to think that an image needs to speak; that it's not enough to convey the silence and stillness of a warm summer afternoon. This morning's reading in Byron Brown's book, Soul Without Shame tells me this:

"The judge gets much of its power from your early experiences of being expected to think and produce words. It is not uncommon for a child to have an empty mind when he is absorbed in playing and interacting with his world. But too often your awareness of having no thoughts came at very unpleasant times, such as when you were expected to answer an adult's question, or you needed to remember something important, or you were so scared or upset you couldn't talk. In those situations, you may have been looked at disapprovingly, accused of hiding something, blamed for not learning, or reprimanded for being disrespectful of elders. Seldom would anyone recognize or appreciate the experience of an empty mind with no answers to what seemed like irrelevant questions.

A blank mind thus became associated with being stupid, feeling lost and alone, or experiencing fear and humiliation. So as an adult, the moment when your thoughts stop becomes a dreaded experience. It is at least embarrassing and at worst potentially damaging if it happens in situations in which you are expected to produce. Because of this, it is easy for the judge to keep you away from such moments of no-thought. The consequence is that your negative associations with empty mind cause you to reject a basic element in the experience of inner peace."

Wow. That explains a lot, doesn't it! I realize, reading this, that a lot of my inner mental machinations are all about creating something to say in the event I am asked a question or expected to explain myself. I find myself wondering if, like my older daughter, I had trouble as a young child forming phrases -- and I can hear some voice taunting me: "What's the matter; cat got your tongue?"

Well, then! No wonder it's so hard to still my mind for meditation: when you release all those thoughts, you risk the possibility of being speechless when that critical moment arises.

I've been driving my daughter's boyfriend to the ferry in the mornings -- he's gotten a summer job working for a lawyer in Seattle -- and yesterday he told me about something called "deutero-truths." A deutero-truth, according to Professor Ken Brashier of Reed College (who was my daughter and her boyfriend's advisor in the religion department at Reed) is an idea you hold but are unaware that you hold, because you've been molded since childhood to see the world a particular way.

We all have them, of course -- the most obvious one to me (and they are by definition more obvious in others than in ourselves)has always the number of grown males who are still held captive by that childhood admonition "Big boys don't cry." A deutero-truth is planted so deeply, and so early in life -- before we learn to question -- that to break from it feels like a life and death issue, and so threateningly scary that we just can't go there.

I wonder if that's why so many folks avoid or struggle with meditation: they're conditioned to think that an empty mind means stupidity and condemnation. And I feel certain that's why so many people are discomfited by new ideas -- especially religious ones. Some deeply planted deutero-truth tells them that even thinking that thought could be life-threatening -- so they just don't go there.

Perhaps this IS a lovely image. Perhaps it doesn't NEED to convey anything beyond a sunny afternoon in a quiet room. I guess I'll just need to spend some time with it and see if I can be open to its silence.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Waiting for the bomb to drop

I grew up in the 50's, which means I grew up in the era of "Duck and Cover;" when people were building bomb shelters and young children watched black and white movies which told us to hide under our school desks and put our hands over our heads if there was an atomic attack -- as if that would have helped!

As I put the final touches on my mannequin and her chair this morning, I was revisiting all the other photos I took of her and playing with them, and I thought this one -- especially if I increased the exposure -- was eerily reminiscent of those bizarre photos of that terrifyingly bright light on all the little fake people standing outside their little houses watching the mushroom cloud going off in the distance. So I've decided to offer her for the exhibit as well, and call her "Waiting for the bomb to drop."

Those of us who grew up in the shadow of the bomb have long been called "The Me Generation." And is it any wonder that, even with the twin threats of global warming and the gulf oil spill -- not to mention a tanking economy -- many of us are continuing to sort of "fiddle while Rome burns?" I'm not sure any of us believed we -- and our society, or even civilization as a whole -- would survive as long as it has/we have. And so it's not surprising when, faced with such calamities, we shrug our shoulders, reach for another glass of wine, or go shopping. Until, of course, the money runs out.

It becomes a sort of endless loop of negativity: the world is going to hell in a handbasket, so why not spend what we've got and enjoy it while we can. And then, of course, the relentless consumption eats at the resources even more, so things get even worse...

I would like to believe that there's a change afoot, a growing awareness of how interconnected we all are with life, that will put a spoke in this wheel . And experiences of community like the ones I've had this past week encourage me in that belief. But another part of me knows that although the mannequin in this image has that look of the 50's about her, and the chair in which she sits is from the same era... well, the attitude she represents, outdated though it may be, is still very much with us.


Monday, June 28, 2010

Coming Home

Where is home for you?

This came up last night in a discussion with our beloved neighbors. We were reconnecting after a crazy busy week, and somehow they got to talking about the ends of their first marriages, and he said he knew he was in trouble when he just no longer wanted to go home.

So his wife asked me -- having read my blog post last week about that feeling of coming home to Shaw -- where home is for me; did I feel good about coming back here after having been there? It was lovely to be able to say yes: there are wonderful things about being there, and being part of that community, but there are also wonderful things about being here, and part of this community.

That was especially fresh in my mind as we talked last night, because I had just come from a truly amazing contemplative worship service. Years ago a group of people -- including the minister -- from our local Presbyterian church went up for some summer courses at the Vancouver School of Theology. While there, they studied under Lynn Bauman and Cynthia Bourgeault, and they brought back with them a new vision of faith and a deepening respect for contemplative prayer.

They brought Bauman, and Bourgeault, and other people with similar interests -- like Richard Rohr -- to the island to speak, and gradually a community of like-minded people began to grow. So now we have these contemplative worship services every 3 months (hopefully we'll soon be increasing the frequency of the meetings), and they are wonderful.

We gather at the home of a couple at the south end of the island who have a large room that makes a lovely worship space. We share dinner and conversation, and then we sit in a circle, open with a prayer, a psalm or a poem, and conduct a sort of non-denominational service that includes more psalms and poems and readings, communion, and a healthy dose of silence -- 3 or 4 10-minute periods of silence.

Last evening we were doubly blessed: Lynn Bauman was in town to help lead us through the service, and we were treated to a beautiful communion liturgy from his book Invocations, a resource for contemplative prayer and for leaders of contemplative prayer gatherings which you can order here. There were some 50 souls gathered in the room, mostly active members of several different churches and denominations around the island and beyond, and there I sat, blessed by a communion of friends, good food, and silence. We chanted from some psalms, and the man and woman on either side of me had beautiful voices so the three of us were inventing lovely harmonies together, even though I'd never met the man to my left before.

And as I sat in the deepening silence, while the music and the sound of the bell died slowly away, I could feel the wings of my heart take flight; feel the oneness resting quietly in the spaces in my heart and cells and in the hearts and the room around me.

This morning in Soul Without Shame I am reading about Value: "At some moment, you have encountered the distinct flavor of feeling worthwhile, feeling that you matter, that something in your very existence has value... It arises in the heart as a sweet, velvet liquid like a luscious, amber nectar...When experienced, this quality gives you a sense of home and a feeling that you have a right to be here."

That's what I mean when I say I feel like I've come home: it's really not a place somewhere else that you go to, it's a sense that you are here, and now, and you belong. And then I read this in Rumi this morning; It's called "The Bright Core of Failure:"

Sometimes you enter the heart.
Sometimes you are born from the soul.
Sometimes you weep a song of separation.
It is all the same glory.

You live in beautiful forms,
and you are the energy that breaks form.
All light, neither this nor that.

Human beings go places on foot.
Angels, with wings.

Even if they find nothing but ruins
and failure, you are the bright core of that.

This, I think, is what Jesus' words in the Gospel of Thomas have to tell us, and this, I think, is the vision of a contemplative faith: that it doesn't matter where we are or what our circumstances may be, there is some bright core of value that lives at the center of things, of us, of the people we encounter, and of our lives. And if we can take the time to open to that, the space to feel it, and the silence to listen for it, that will always be our home -- and we will find ourselves at home wherever we are.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Safe in the branches

I spent some wonderful girl time with my friend Carole up on Shaw: some of it getting to know her chickens, some of it photographing the flowers in her beautiful garden, some of it watching her golden retriever, Luna, swimming in the pond, and some of it just sitting and talking, first on her porch and later in her little open air cabin down by the water.

While we were on her front porch, sipping our tea, I kept getting distracted by this madrona branch just beyond her house, and finally broke down (though it felt a bit rude), grabbed my camera, and took a photo.

At the time it was just an interesting branch, but now I see that I was photographing a broad shoulder and a strong arm; some reassurance that someone somewhere is continuing to carry the cares of the world as if they were a precious treasure. Which is a good thing, because we as individuals can't really shoulder some burdens alone.

I'm especially aware of that this morning; I had promised my daughter just last night that I would come up and serve as an artist in residence at her camp for 10 days. But I realized this morning that I wasn't thinking, that I'm about to enter grad school, and probably can't just take off for a week or so. So I spent some time poking around the school website, finally tracked down my course syllabus, and realized, no, I can't go play in the islands; I need to be available here for meetings, and I need access to my computer as well.

So I sent her a note with an apology this morning, and of course my inner judge is pretty annoyed with me for not having thought this through more carefully before making the promise. And then the other voices start cropping up with excuses, justifications, and reassurances: But I've been sick! But I've been away from home and hadn't seen the syllabus yet! But she called when I was sound asleep! It's okay, you caught your mistake before 24 hours were up!

And then the judge pipes in: But you let her down, and she'll be disappointed in you. The judge thinks I should be able to do everything right and be perfect all the time -- and that's a burden I really need to just stop carrying.

I need to ignore the judge, the excuser, the justifier and the reassurer and just sit with what is. The truth is, I love my kid to pieces, and would have loved a chance to work for and with her in the place she loves more than anyplace in the world. I was excited about being an artist in residence. And I'm disappointed I won't get to do that, because it would have really been fun and and a new way to bond with her and a great way to give back my time and talent.

But the root of the problem -- what the judge is shouting to overcome -- is not just my sadness about missing that. It's anxiety about this huge choice I've made: will I be able to pull this off, going back to school, studying, attending classes, doing cooperative projects, returning to the work world? I've been happy being an artist, wife and mom for the last 14 years; what will it be like to re-enter the world of education and business? Do I have what it takes anymore?

We'll just have to see. But I'll do a better job of succeeding in ALL these arenas if I can keep that inner judge from piping up with her incessant criticisms.

You know -- when I was a kid, I spent a lot of time escaping the pressures of family, friends and school by climbing up into a tree and daydreaming in its branches. I guess what this picture is telling me is that some part of me still longs to do that. Perhaps my faith -- or this blog -- is the tree where I do my daydreaming now...

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Blowing away a dark fog

After rising at 5:30 yesterday, I spent most of the day traveling back home from Shaw, and then, after taking care of a few vital matters around the house, took off for an evening of adventure and art. We didn't get home until well after 10, and then sat up talking with the kids for a while, so it was almost midnight when I finally crawled into bed.

As sometimes happens at such times, I became too chilled and restless to sleep, and the cold which has been brewing for a while now decided to manifest itself with a mass of symptoms that proceeded to keep me awake for the rest of the night.

So by the time morning arrived (the morning, I might add, of the infamous Rotary Auction) I rolled out of bed in a dark fog with a moderate fever. I went downstairs and had a cup of coffee, and for my morning meditation I concentrated on a healing breath pattern my friend Catherine learned of from Dr. Dan Siegel, author of Mindsight.

You breathe in for a count of four, breathe out for a count of eight, and hold for a count of ten, so I did that for 20 minutes or so, and then headed off to our local clinic for some relief. Interestingly enough, my fever was gone by the time I got in to be seen, but the doctor did a blood test (these symptoms have been building for several weeks now, and have already survived a round of antibiotics ) and announced I was fine, just battling a particularly pesky virus (translate: sorry, there's nothing I can do for you!).

Sigh. I came back home, took some Tylenol and crawled into bed; woke a couple of hours later feeling surprisingly refreshed. It helps that the sun is out, of course -- amazing what that -- and a little sleep -- can do for a mood. But my suspicion is that the breathing practice helped, as well. So I think I'll let that be my meditation for the next few days, and see if it continues to help me recover. Perhaps the breathing works like the wind, to blow the dark fog away...

Friday, June 25, 2010

Experiencing spaciousness

Back when we lived on this island full-time, we used to go down to the Neck most evenings in summer. Our elderly springer spaniel would walk down with us, and Kiwi, the gosling we rescued, would tag along; the girls would play in the sand, and I’d bring my camera and photograph the sunsets.

So last night, after spending the evening with my old friends Barney and Joyce, I drove down to the Neck to see the sunset. As you can see, I wasn’t disappointed; it was a lovely evening. What intrigues me about this photo, though, is that I’ve never actually taken this picture before. In those days my telephoto wasn’t as strong, so the pictures took in more – the dock off to the left, Keith’s boat off to the right, and maybe a little of the trees on either side to frame the image.

But the camera I have now, though it’s much less expensive than the Nikon I had then, is also more sophisticated, and now for the first time I can see this lovely layered scene off in the distance.

I’m wondering if there’s some parallel here with aging. In some ways, it’s easier to get the big picture these days; easier not to get all caught up in the details, missing the forest for the trees. But at another level, even though life is shorter than it was back then, I feel I have more time to zero in on things, to examine them more closely, and to find the beauty lurking in hidden corners that in my younger days I was just too busy to see.

For sure I’m looking through a different lens now; certainly everything I see is filtered through another 13 years of life experiences since I last stood here, supervising my children’s play, throwing sticks for the dog and protecting Kiwi from marauding eagles. But my attention – and intention – is honed, and sharpened, so I see more; see subtleties of color and shape I missed before.

But here’s the other thing: in those days my motives for shooting were different: I was trying to capture a moment, and I was still in a sort of desperate “will it sell?” mode, hoping to impress a potential buyer. Plus I was shooting film, and had no idea if the pictures would come out right, so I was trying lots of different angles and exposures hoping one would work.

Now I know what I’m getting right away, so the guesswork and the frantic repetitions are removed. And I’m not trying – or even planning – to sell; my only wish is to share the beauty and the peace of this place with you. So I can relax, shoot what I like, know that it worked, and then stop, and just be aware that I’m very fortunate to be here in this place. There’s a lovely spaciousness in that; an openness, without the pressure of performance. And of course Byron Brown has something to say about that in this morning’s reading from Soul Without Shame:

To experience your own spaciousness is to recognize the true nature of your soul, a felt sense that has nothing to do with personal history, ideas, behavior, or accomplishments. It is always there but easily ignored. It is tangible and powerful yet difficult to focus on and even harder to describe… With time and awareness it becomes possible to accept and appreciate the experience of spaciousness in your head, your body, or your sense of who you are. This opens the way for the sense of barren or frightening emptiness to become the experience of open space. When you stop looking for something to fill the space, you can begin to…feel and embrace your own spacious nature.”

Perhaps what really makes a difference is that, with time, the camera has become less an instrument and more a sort of carry-all. Now when I throw that strap over my shoulder and hit the road, I know what’s really happening is that I’m off again in search of beauty, spaciousness and peace. And in bringing my camera, I’m bringing you right along with me.

Thanks for joining me!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Your personal dustbath

It seems a bit counterintuitive, but I spent most of yesterday afternoon getting to know a bunch of chickens, and I learned that they clean themselves by digging holes in the dirt, crawling in, and taking dust baths. And how bizarre is that?

By now you know I can take almost anything and relate it back to the book I’m reading, but this one – farfetched as it may seem – is one of the most obvious metaphors I’ve encountered in quite a while. Because this morning’s chapter in Soul Without Shame is all about the importance of allowing yourself to stay with pain long enough to revisit its source, so that you as an adult can clarify what was happening for your inner child and offer compassion – which leads to healing.

Apparently as long as you think of your hurt as something to be avoided or gotten rid of, "the implicit rejection and hostility support a state of disconnection inside you.” But getting in touch with those old wounds and accepting them with compassion “is like having spaciousness in your chest, room to breathe and be with your feelings. The unconscious holding against the pain in the heart relaxes. You can rest in what is true: there was hurt; that can’t be changed. You feel the pain, and you are larger than it. You experience a sense of allowing and support for the truth, without needing to do or be anything. The warmth of tender kindness is mixed with the cool freshness of reality.”

I mean, hello: isn’t that just as counter-intuitive as a dustbath? Somehow getting “down and dirty” with that stuff in your past that haunts you – and then accepting it, allowing it to be, and loving yourself through it – is refreshing?

But hey: if it works for chickens, maybe it can work for us, too. Certainly worth investigating!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

How and what we see and hear

This was the pastoral scene I glimpsed from my living room window this morning. This young buck has been hovering around the house for a couple of days now; I’ve even been able to get in a couple of nice head shots of him. But there’s something incredibly soothing about this picture, framed as it is by the graceful arc of branches, the strong verticals of the trees, and that patch of sunlight streaming across the bottom.

I thought it could be even better if I could get eye contact with him, so I went out and stood on my front porch, but though the setting was the same, this picture, though it isn’t as direct, is better; there’s something about his absorption in the food that makes it more appealing.

So why is that? Is it somehow more soothing to be a spectator than to engage? Or have I projected something into the gaze of the startled deer; something that says I don’t belong, go away? And if it is the latter, how much of that is projection and how much is real?

When I was growing up my family moved several times, so I often found myself in new situations. Can it be the look on the face of the deer is reminiscent of the faces of the other children when I entered those new classrooms? Who are you, and why are you in my space? Over the years I learned that it was best to keep a low profile in new situations; to watch and learn; to stay invisible as long as possible so as not to draw undue attention to myself.

But I wasn’t born to be invisible – no one is – and so eventually parts of my personality would begin to emerge, some likeable and appealing; some less so. And, of course, I was a better fit in some environments than in others. I also incorporated characteristics from each place I lived and worked, and inevitably some of those would transfer well and others would not.

I still remember when I first moved to Bainbridge, and began singing in a women’s compline choir. Several months in one of the women turned to me and asked where I’d grown up. “In the Midwest,” I replied; “Cincinnati and Chicago.”

“Oh,” she said, “that explains that dreadful accent of yours.”


It didn’t stop me from singing in the group, but I never volunteered to read the lessons again. What is it that makes some of us so vulnerable to criticism while others – like my husband -- seem to just ride through it; to change what needs to be changed and shrug off what doesn’t seem to fit or need fixing? I had hoped to raise my children to be a bit more like their dad in that respect, but instead they, too, tend to be sensitive and overly vulnerable to criticism.

I get now that it’s not the criticism that creates that vulnerability as much as it is the voice of the inner critic, who chimes in with echoes of the past. As Brown says in my readings from Soul Without Shame this morning, “When you are attacked, you are affected primarily by becoming identified with a particular self-image from your past.

“The provoked feelings themselves are not the problem; what limits you and creates self-rejection is the self-image those feelings are associated with. Every attack you experience provokes a particular self-image…which can be traced back to some early situation in your childhood that became crystallized as this internal image… though you may think and act outwardly as if you were an adult, unconsciously you are acting like the small child you once were. It is no wonder you feel unable to function effectively.”

And now I see that that’s one of the reasons I’m spending some time here in this place: I’ve come in hopes of befriending those old voices so I can remove some of their power. Now I just need to be brave enough to take the time to listen…

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sources of joy

I’m sitting in the living room of our little manufactured home on Shaw Island (though to input this to the blog I’ll need to park outside the library to use their free wi-fi), and the sun – which has only put in one or two appearances in the last month or two – is peeping through the lace curtains, casting patterns on the floor.

I left Bainbridge yesterday around noon and took a very leisurely drive up, stopping at antique stores along the way in hopes of finding an oddly shaped piece of furniture to put at the base of our stairwell. It was – as usual – a cool gray day, and I anticipated more of the same for the rest of the week, so it was a delight to hear the foghorns this morning: not only would that mean great photo opportunities, but also they’re a harbinger of sunshine, which almost always follows a thick fog.

I made it to Anacortes in plenty of time for the 7 pm ferry, and was delighted to find several old friends riding with me on the boat, all returning from various errands in town. We sat together and talked of simple things – baby chicks being killed by mink and raccoons, the proposed ferry schedule for fall, the possibility of a new pre-school building attached to the school… It was lovely to be included in the conversation, and when I told my husband about it later on the phone, he got it immediately. “You’ve come home,” he said. “You’ve come home.”

And that’s really how it feels: there’s a clarity, and a coolness – like standing under a waterfall – to life here, on this island; a sense of belonging and purpose, of privacy and peace and yet protection and acceptance and comfort.

And above all, connection. I spent a couple of hours this morning driving around to old familiar places and taking pictures, and every spot had a bit of personal history to color it. This boat, for example, I first photographed in 1997, on a foggy day where water, sky and dock were all gray and the boat was perfectly reflected in the colorlessness, with a seagull swimming nearby. The image sold several times over, and was the inspiration for several years spent photographing boats almost exclusively.

The boat, now dappled in sunlight, is still lovely; it’s good to see it again. And what I feel, as I capture this boat and so many other island scenes, is a wash of what feels like pure joy. Which is interesting, because that’s the subject of this morning’s chapter in Soul Without Shame. Joy, says the author, Byron Brown, “is closely linked to desire. You desire what you take joy in, and the heart is filled with joy when it receives what it desires. For that reason you have grown up believing that joy is a result of getting what you want. There is some truth in this belief… and so desire leads you on in search of the food that you believe will fill your hungry heart.

“Only after much searching and many disappointments,” Brown says, “do you realize that the heart’s own freedom is what gives it joy…. Events and situations, people and places do not cause joy. At best they remove a barrier to joy’s arising. The true source of joy is the heart’s knowing and being itself without restraint.”

So does that mean my time here is NOT giving me joy? Obviously not; it only means I didn’t really need to come here to find joy. Something – probably my inner judge – that keeps me from feeling free when I am elsewhere seems to drop away when I am here. So perhaps my job is to spend some time here assessing exactly what is awakened and what is quieted when I am in this place, and then find ways to carry that quietness and awakening back with me when I return.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Too much stuff

This morning I woke up thinking about Bainbridge Island's 50th Annual Rotary Club Auction, which will be taking place this coming weekend.

The Rotary Auction is all about STUFF -- CHEAP stuff, and piles of it. Piles and piles of it. And piles and piles of people, too; thousands and thousands of people come from all over the Seattle area for a chance to buy all this Bainbridge Stuff. Because the sale, as you can see from the map below, is HUGE, filling an entire school, all of its parking lots and playgrounds, the cafeteria, the gym...

Lots of what is sold is of limited value, like these gas cans and lifejackets. But some stuff -- like this adorable sailing canoe -- is quite desirable. The really desirable stuff goes on silent auction, and people hover around the piece of paper associated with their particular item, hoping desperately to get in the last bid before the buzzer goes off. And if it gets REALLY competitive, a volunteer steps in and it becomes a live auction item, and then the prices can go up into the stratosphere.

And after the sale is over, all the stuff that isn't sold -- like these computer monitors -- gets thrown into giant boxes and carted away by the truckload. It's amazing how much stuff there is to give away at the end; there's a sort of loaves and fishes quality to it all. But what's even more amazing -- and what allows all of us shoppers to justify our annual madness -- is that last year's sale made over $341,000 -- most of which is given away to support the local schools and other educational programs Rotary sponsors. So of course this year, being the 50th, they anticipate an even bigger and more successful turnout.

I can't deny it: the Auction is fun, and it's exciting, and we always come home with stuff: one year my daughter fixated on a velvet recliner in a particularly heinous shade of chartreuse (broken, of course) which has been a party favorite at our house ever since. My husband likes to browse in the books (which fill an entire gymnasium) and I love the bag sale at the end of the day in the clothing section (that one takes up an entire basketball court, and that doesn't even include children's clothes or the high end clothing items); it's a great way to collect random fabrics for quilting projects.

I get that it's all about recycling, which is good. But some other part of me is appalled at the sheer proliferation of stuff -- especially in light of the gulf oil spill. It has a way of bringing the profligacy of our society's consumption habit into disturbingly plain view -- sort of like George Carlin's famous "Stuff" routine. Unfortunately, the opportunity to acquire stuff we kinda need but don't care too much about -- lamps, or picture frames, or TV tables, or a replacement coffeemaker -- is enough to draw us in year after year, and so we return for the madness of it all. And it is, of course, a primo social event; all your friends will be there, running around collecting whatever stuff they're lusting after this year. We all look a little sheepish, but we grin and laugh and show off our acquisitions -- half of which will end up being given away to next year's auction.

It's all for a good cause. But still. I wish we didn't all seem to need -- and buy, and keep, and store, and eventually throw or give away -- quite so much STUFF.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

On Fathers Day

It's Fathers Day, and all over the country dads are receiving cards and phone calls, breakfasts and promises of time to be spent together. Moms are encouraging their children to honor their fathers, and smiling fondly at the results...

It's one of those Hallmark Holidays, all rosy and sweet. Except for some of us it's not.

I still remember the last Fathers Day my dad was still alive. I was sitting in a chair in my living room, phone in hand, planning to call him. I sat there for a long time, and eventually put the phone back in its cradle: I was so hurt and angry with him I just couldn't think of anything to say. And I wasn't at all sure they'd pick up the phone even if I did get up the nerve to call.

And then, less than a month later, I got a call from his lawyer: "Did you know if your dad wanted to be cremated or buried? Your father died last week and his wife doesn't know what to do with his body..." And behind the shock, I remember feeling so guilty for not having at least attempted to call him on Fathers Day.

I could go into the details of the estrangement -- I was an only child, a daddy's girl, he could do no wrong and neither could I, and then mom died and he remarried a woman my age, rewrote his will and shut me out of his life. But the details are over and done and he and my inheritance are long gone. It's just a story now, and has lost most of its power to hurt me.

Still. Some years, Fathers Day finds me sitting in that chair, remembering the feel of the phone in my hand. It's hard to stay focused on my own husband and whatever HE might be expecting for the day. But over time I've come to see that where I feel the impact of the story most is in church, on Sunday mornings, when we say the Lord's Prayer: I always skip the first two words.

I just can't do the kindly Father God thing any more -- though I still sometimes find myself slipping back into the faith of my childhood, when God was a fierce but loving white-bearded guy up in the sky somewhere, as quick to punish as to protect.

I remember, after I came back from Dad's memorial service, my priest came out to visit. I shared my story, with lots more gory details, and told him how much I mourned the ending of my illusions. Still swirling in the drama of it all, I was too hurt to really take in his response at the time, but I do remember it. "What if it's not an end?" he said. "What if it's a beginning?"

... and, of course, it was just that: a beginning. Losing all those old illusions, images of who I was and the genes I carried, turned out to be an amazing gift. Having to reinvent myself in my early 50's, though it meant questioning everything and losing my foundations, meant rebuilding something newer, stronger; something more true -- and it meant finding the strength within myself, and within my relationships, to imagine and live out a new way of being. I got... I don't know... bigger, somehow, more real.

And my God got bigger, too; bigger than just a father, but not a mother either -- though I tried that for a while. God became an is-ness, more the "I-am" of the old testament, more present and real and everywhere and universal than any mere father is capable of being.

But still sometimes, on Fathers Day, I'm sad. Life is good now, but... well, like the movie and all those Facebook statuses say, "It's Complicated." Sometimes I'm sad for the simplicity that was; the sense that someone had the answers, and I wouldn't have to formulate them for myself.


It's Fathers Day.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Coping with the wobblies

When our new neighbors moved in down the street with their two little kids, the neighbors between our house and theirs offered them this sweet little blue dinghy, which now bobs gently in the waves just beyond our living room window.

It's a pleasing sight, and a soothing one. I love watching boats, because they have a balance of their own: I find their ability to stay afloat so gracefully -- despite the waves and currents that pass by -- quietly reassuring.

So how do YOU react when a hard wave hits? I am thinking about this today in particular because I am reading this morning about our own tendency to judge, not just ourselves, but others as well. And I see from my reading that the particular pattern that has haunted me most of my life -- get hurt, get angry, lash out, feel guilty, and turn the blame inward -- is actually very common; Byron Brown calls it "the judgment loop," and once you're sensitized to it, you can kind of see it everywhere, even in this simple picture of a boat.

The wave of criticism hits, and some part of us bounces away from it, and then hits its apogee and bounces back, but of course over-compensates and then has to correct... depending on the strength of the wave this bouncing back and forth between feeling attacked and hitting back can go on for a long time afterwards before things settle down -- if they ever do.

So what is it that keeps a boat steady, keeps her from getting swamped, helps her return to stability over and over again? It helps, of course, that she is designed -- as I suspect we are -- not for sitting still but for riding the waves -- all kinds of waves: events, disasters, health problems, relationship problems, job problems... We may prefer to be still and undisturbed, but the fact is all those opposing systems in us were designed as stabilizing features to help balance out our reactions to life's challenges. And now I see that we're back in the territory of the negative feedback loop: something throws us off-course, and we compensate. If we OVER-compensate, well, even though WE are the element throwing us off course, its still our job to correct for that.

The fact is life's just like that: like the boat, or that image I spoke of in an earlier post, about riding a bike, things can get a bit wobbly at times. But both the boat and the bike are designed for forward movement, and often it is that forward momentum that helps keep them -- and us -- stabilized; that sense of moving toward a goal can help keep us from getting sucked into the wobblies.

... which is not to advocate getting so caught up in the future that we miss the glory that is now. But perhaps the reason we have that odd tendency to focus on past and future is precisely because NOW can get a bit wobbly at times -- and without the confidence that we can weather the storms, we may not want to sit and feel exactly how wobbly things are.

Sorry -- I seem to be getting tangled up in this metaphor. Perhaps what I want to say is just this: I don't know about you, but there's quite a bit of wobbly in my life right now. If I sit and feel it, I can get a little scared and shaky -- which seems a bit counter-productive, since all the wobblies are pretty much out of my control. So I think that's why grad school seemed like a good choice: it gives me a goal, a direction, a sense of forward movement, and something to look forward to, all of which help to give me more of a sense of stability and purpose.

But the surprise I'm discovering, as I start to read for the courses that lie ahead, is that this choice, which felt like a stretch, and a little bit off the track I've been on for the past decade or so, is turning out to be in the direction of integration. It seems that in taking the time -- despite (or perhaps because of) the wobblies -- to listen to what I'm really feeling and what I really want, and then in choosing to act on that information, I've arrived at what turns out to be a course of action far more rewarding and productive than I had expected; a course which promises increased stability in my future.

And now I think I should close with this quote my friend Teresa posted on Facebook this morning: it seems amazingly relevant, though I read it after I finished the previous paragraphs:

"The old flood stories don't persist in order to inform us what happened before but to remind us of the project we came here to undertake now. The dream came, and Noah got hired to do eccentric things. Animals began to long for faraway places. Water dissolved familiar shorelines. The certainty of life began to slip away. Those who held anything too tightly were unable to shift when the tide changed. The problem wasn't that the end of the world had come; rather, the issue was how to act when it seemed that way.

"When The End seems near, old ideas return in order to be known again. Subtle voices hint at unseen designs. If we begin listening, as old Manu did, as Noah did, we become gainfully employed and find the exact projects and practices needed to keep things afloat for a long time to come. Secretly, each of us is a Noah sent on a distant and seemingly foolish errand that can help the world as well as fulfill us. If we listen, we add to the story of life; if not, we join those who become foolish in the wrong way." Michael Meade, as published in Spirituality and Health magazine, Summer 2009 issue.

See? It's all good!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Armoring with awareness

As you can see, a new goddess arrived yesterday. I had an interesting time naming her: I wanted to honor her reflective surfaces, her transparency, and the holes in her chest and belly, and I explored a number of possibilities before I realized I had never done a goddess of awareness.

But then, how would you DO a goddess of awareness? What IS awareness? Would she be all eyes, or all ears? What this figure teaches me (now that I see she is a goddess of awareness) is that part of the reason we have difficulties with awareness may be because in order to be aware we have to let our guard down. In order to be fully conscious of what's going on around us, we have to be open, welcoming, even accepting of our own sensory input: we can't just take in the stuff we like and deny everything else.

Part of the risk you take there, of course, is that if you're willing to take everything in, that awareness will affect your presence in the world. I don't know about you, but when I'm aware of something, it shows; I can't hide my awareness (I've never had much of a poker face!). So perhaps those reflective surfaces are about that: what we take in, we can't help but reflect back.

The good news is that awareness is part of what allows us to defeat our inner judge. If we can be aware, not only of what's going on around us, but also of what's going on inside us, we don't need the protection and constant prompting of the judge: our awareness actually serves as a kind of armor.

In Soul Without Shame, Brown states that in order to free yourself from the constant controlling of your inner judge, you need to understand and use your own will. And will, he says Brown, "builds on awareness and acceptance. You perceive as fully as possible your current reality and align yourself with that. This means being in touch with physical reality: the concrete definiteness of your own body, the air you breathe, the food you eat, the house you live in, the car you drive. If something is broken, you fix it; you don't walk by it for months, hoping it will go away. Will also means being in touch with your feelings, your needs, your thoughts, your beliefs, and your judge.

...Staying in touch with your personal will threatens the judge's power. If you begin to trust yourself and the experience of being with your own truth, then you will not need the support of the judge. As you cultivate your sense of steadfastness in reality, you develop the patience to allow things to unfold and reveal their truth to you rather than allowing the judge to impose its beliefs, priorities, and values on your experience.

The personal will works in concert with awareness by providing the determination to sense, look and listen. As your personal will develops, you will have more capacity not to engage your judge when it delivers a familiar attack. How would it be simply to listen to the judge without response -- to commit to doing nothing but following your own breathing? If the judge cannot make you act or react, it is lost; it has no power."

Hmm. I like the sound of this...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Will it sell?

Artists, I suspect, are particularly prone to the negative promptings of the inner judge -- or perhaps it's just that it's easier to notice them. The judge HAS to engage, because every choice we make in the creative process is essentially a judgment: should I try this line or that, photograph from this angle or that, sing the note this way or that?

We have to remain open enough to let the creativity flow through, but that makes us vulnerable to the judge as well. And I personally add to that, when I am preparing for a specific exhibit, "Will they accept this if I do it this way?" and of course THOSE decisions, because the gallery needs to make money, are in turn based on their own answers to the almighty question, "Will it sell?"

It's hard not to be cynical and assume that "Will it sell?" is at the bottom of lots of decisions on all kinds of levels. You can imagine BP execs trying to figure out what to say about the mess in the Gulf: of course their question is "will it sell?" Will it sell to the public to keep them from boycotting? Will it sell to the government to lower the reparation costs? Will it sell to the stockholders?

In those cases it would have been nice if the "Will it sell" question had been considered a little earlier in the process. But for me art is the most fun when "Will it sell" doesn't enter into the picture until REALLY LATE in the process -- which is what happened with this image. It started out as a silhouette of a piece of a dried arrangement against a screened window -- which I noticed because the current exhibit I'm working on is called Patterns. But the image itself didn't seem all that distinctive a pattern, so I was thinking of scrapping it when I realized I liked the curve of it. What if I replicated the curve? The joy of Photoshop is that I can play with ideas like that without investing a lot of energy and time.

So I tried that, copying and rotating the original image until this larger pattern -- which I really like -- emerged. And then I thought it needed some red. I tried the simplest thing, putting a red star in the middle, and it was only then that "Will it sell?" raised its ugly head. Nope, I thought: the star is trite. I want a Japanese character in there.

I tried typing one with the various Kanji alphabets that seem to be available on my computer, but that didn't seem to work. So I went browsing around some Kanji sites looking for something pretty and appropriate to insert at the center, and found this character, which supposedly means soul. How appropriate, I thought, to put soul at the center! I liked it, and like the look of the results.

So in this case the "Will it sell" question paid off in a deeper meaning to the image, allowed me to hear and feel the heart of the work I was doing in a new way.

Which just goes to show that even the "Will it sell?" question isn't all bad: in exploring the answers, we can broaden our creativity and even our openness. Especially if I remain conscious of the truth, which is that the first person who has to buy into my results is, well, me. If I do this, how will I feel about it; how will I feel about me? And who is the "I" that HAS those good or bad feelings? Because the I that's judging may not be just a judge, but a conscience. Is the voice coming from the head, and accusatory? Or from the heart, and encouraging; "You can do better." If we're lucky, it's that soul voice at the center, holding us steady on a course that emerges out of connection to the Divine within, above and all around us.

With luck, when BP asks "will it sell?" and the answer at so many different levels is "NO!" it will force them to take a deeper look at what they're doing and how they're doing it, and find some new creative solution to the problem of providing energy.

With luck, ALL of us, having seen the devastating effects of our profligate over-dependence on petroleum products, will begin to question our daily choices. Do I NEED to make three trips into town today? Will it sell? Do I NEED to buy vegetables and fruits that are shipped to my store from ridiculously far away places, or can I buy local produce? Will it sell?

What decisions are you making today? And is your soul buying that you're keeping the broader needs of creation in mind? If not, how -- and where -- will you look deeper to find a more thoughtful answer to the questions?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The pool of acceptance

This morning I am reading about acceptance. Did you know that acceptance is not the opposite of rejection? APPROVAL is the opposite of rejection. Acceptance does not have the value judgment implied by rejection and approval; it is simply... acceptance. What is, is. What is not, is not. Or, as the bumper sticker I once thought of designing says: Life's not what it's not; it is what it is.

I'm thinking the opposite of acceptance may be resistance; a reluctance to accept what is, and what isn't. A pushing away, a tightening, a bracing.

"Acceptance," Brown says, in Soul Without Shame, "is the heart opening and welcoming what you are. To the freshness and immediacy of awareness, it adds the qualities of intimacy and flow -- a sense of release and the feeling of being washed clean of holding patterns, tensions, and resistances to what you are at this moment. It permeates you with a cool, gentle freshness, soothing the familiar internal agitation of your inner activity."

Doesn't that just sound delicious?

Today my job is to notice when resistance arises, and to see if I can transform it into acceptance.

Won't you join me? It feels like -- come, let's all go for a swim!

(PS: This image is the pattern thrown on the ceiling by our dining room lights with some color alterations; I happened to notice it while thinking about acceptance.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

From a distance

On Sunday afternoon my husband and I went for a drive. As usual, I brought my camera along -- just in case there might be something that caught my eye...

This is a favorite barn of mine; I've shot lots of pictures of it through the years. But this was the first time I'd ever seen it surrounded by cows, so we decided we'd stop by on the way back and get a couple of shots.

By the time we returned, most of the cows had headed off to another nearby barn for dinner, and only a few were left. We quickly grabbed a shot or two, and before long the field around the barn was as empty as I've always seen it before: yet another reminder that if you see something that makes a picture, take the picture right away, as even a brief time elapsed will bring a change.

Because, of course, everything is always changing -- and, in fact, in some ways that can often be the purpose of photography: to capture something ephemeral, either before it changes or as it changes: a wedding, a graduation, a sunset, a canal in Venice -- in each case, something is changing, or is about to change: two become one, school gives way to jobs, light fades to dark, or we will soon be gone; back in the US where Venice will seem like just a beautiful dream.

Professional art photographers sometimes sneer at these sorts of photos, and call them "record shots," just recording a moment in time. But isn't every shot a kind of record shot, the capturing of a moment? Perhaps the sneer comes because the photographer had little hand in creating the moment; they just happened to be there and snap it. But what does the act of creating the moment add? I suppose it is a way of declaring ownership: I am the one who saw the potential here and took the effort to capture it; you weren't here, or even if you had been, you could not have seen what I saw.

But of course that would be true: you and I could both be looking at this barn, and this cow, and seeing completely different things, because how we see is so completely colored by context. Your context and mine will always be different, though the differences may range from huge to subtle. I see this cow and barn and smile, not just because I spent 20 years living in Vermont and driving by scenes like this every day, but because I grew up next to a farm, whose cows would stare through their fence and through the picture window in our dining room, watching us each night as we ate dinner. Yes, the colors and contrasts are nice, but the picture also speaks to me of home, and comfort, and a sense of belonging. For you, this picture might be as remote as a canal in Venice: sweet to look at, perhaps even comforting, but still essentially foreign.

Perhaps the reason we humans find the idea of God so appealing is because we like to imagine a God who can hold -- and understand -- all the different possible contexts together in a single whole, and know them all to be good and valid in a way that we as individuals in a designated time and place cannot. And of course we put that God up in the sky somewhere, because we can't imagine having that broad a perspective when you're right down here in the thick of things. We think God NEEDS to keep a little distance from us, in order not to get sucked in to a particular way of seeing.

It makes me think of that tacky -- but still kind of wonderful -- Bette Midler song, From a Distance:

From a distance the world looks blue and green,
and the snow-capped mountains white.
From a distance the ocean meets the stream,
and the eagle takes to flight.

From a distance, there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
It's the voice of hope, it's the voice of peace,
it's the voice of every man.

From a distance we all have enough,
and no one is in need.
And there are no guns, no bombs, and no disease,
no hungry mouths to feed.

From a distance we are instruments
marching in a common band.
Playing songs of hope, playing songs of peace.
They're the songs of every man.
God is watching us. God is watching us.
God is watching us from a distance.

From a distance you look like my friend,
even though we are at war.
From a distance I just cannot comprehend
what all this fighting is for.

From a distance there is harmony,
and it echoes through the land.
And it's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves,
it's the heart of every man.

It's the hope of hopes, it's the love of loves.
This is the song of every man.
And God is watching us, God is watching us,
God is watching us from a distance.
Oh, God is watching us, God is watching.
God is watching us from a distance.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Pure Heaven

I'm learning that the best way to become aware of that inner judge (no surprises here!) is just to practice more awareness in general -- something I definitely need to get better at.

So I spent some time this morning, both before and during my meditation time, just tuning in; paying attention to the sounds around me, the sensations in my body (especially since a trip to the theater last night has left me with a stiffness in my lower back), the scents in the room, the feelings arising within me....

So the meditation time was actually more peaceful: I wasn't battling the urge to drift from center, just noticing it, noticing where it was taking me. And I found I seemed to be seeing -- or craving; I'm not sure which -- colors: soft sky blues, and pale warm yellows -- sort of sunrise colors. I decided to share them with you this morning, which was a wonderful excuse to go browsing through my image folders -- especially the ones of boats and water at sunrise -- to find some color to share.

This image is called A Fine Rowmance, and is one of my alltime favorites: I liked it so much that I blew it up large and printed it on canvas. Normally it hangs outside our bedroom door, but for the last few months it's been hanging at the Virginia Mason Clinic on Bainbridge, part of a whole show of boat pictures. I'll be glad when it's home again: how it looks is how I like to feel, and it's always nice -- for those times I drift away from center -- to have something around to remind me of those feelings.

Oh -- and now I realize, that whole longing for color may have been triggered by this passage on awareness that I read this morning in Soul Without Shame :

"Awareness brings a definite quality to your experience: when it is available in an unrestricted way, your mind has a lightness, a clarity, and a cool freshness, almost like the air on a crisp fall day. Things appear bright and new as if you were seeing and hearing them for the first time."

And that passage in turn reminds me of a meditation passage from The Seeker's Guide -- which we are still reading for my spirituality class -- that turned up last week:

"Imagine you have been on a long journey, climbing a high mountain through uncharted territory. The cloud cover has been thick and the path covered with underbrush and loose stones. You have been tired, scared, doubtful. But now, as you reach the top, the clouds lift and the way is open and broad. The air is pure. It brightens your mood. Look around: the sunlight is strong and real; the rocks seem lit from within; the clear sky is charged with energy. The atmosphere stirs your emotions, purifying and revivifying you to the core of your being. You feel almost translucent, fully alive, alert. You perceive subtle, spiritual vibrations that communicate to you through the cells of your body and the energetic field around your body. Your mind is at peace; your heart fills with what it has always hungered for. You are in the presence of God. You are in the Landscape of the Soul. You are home."

Yup. That's it. That's where I want to be -- and where I felt I was when I took this picture. Pure heaven -- not in the sense that I've gone to meet my maker up in the sky somewhere; more in the soothing and uplifting sense that we are One, right here, right now, and always. I have only to open my eyes and heart to see.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Feeling exposed...

Even though we didn't get home last night until almost 2, my inner judge woke me this morning. Well, I had to get up anyway to feed the dog, but the judge was on overdrive -- or maybe it's just that now I'm learning about the inner judge I can hear her that much more clearly.

The thing is -- we went to a birthday party last night for a friend we've known longer than we've known each other (some days it's hard to believe I could have known ANYone for more than 30 years!). The party was being thrown at the home of one of her friends over on Seattle's east side, and the festivities didn't begin to die down until after 11, so we missed the 11:15 boat back and had to wait for the 12:45.

So it's not so surprising, given the shortened sleep cycle, that parts of me were complaining bitterly. But it's also true that we rarely socialize these days, so I'm a bit out of practice. And 12 of the 14 people at the party were essentially strangers. Nice strangers, to be sure. But still... My natural inclination in such cases is to keep a low profile, single out individuals and get to know them -- it feels safer somehow, establishing individual lines of connection -- but the evening didn't really permit that.

Instead we conversed as a group, with the birthday girl mostly holding center stage and then passing the baton from person to person so that each person's conversation became a bit of a soliloquy with everyone watching. I was singled out several times to speak -- which my husband kindly tells me I handled well -- but my inner judge was accusing me of not passing the baton quickly enough; of not being self-effacing enough.

So I was in a bit of a blue funk as I stumbled down the stairs to feed the dog and grab my coffee. Thank God (and Byron Brown) for my readings in Soul Without Shame this morning, which did not allow me to wallow in self-doubt but encouraged me instead to look more closely at the situation. Because it wasn't until I spent some time looking at the way the evening was structured that I began to understand that I had no choice but to step onto the stage from time to time. And upon closer examination it looks like I didn't actually overstep myself; my soliloquys were reasonably brief and to the point. It's more that I just felt really exposed and uncomfortable talking to a group of strangers about such personal topics as my work as a photographer, my decision to go to grad school, my stage roles, and my obsession with color -- primarily because I'm ... well ... shy.

Once I realized that was the root of the problem, I could pat that shy child on the back and shush the judge a bit, and now I can feel a gentle easing of that sort of inner compression that occurs when the judge is on a roll. But it takes work: she's so loud and accusatory I find myself wanting to crawl under a rock until she goes away. Which is good to notice, because her voice is terribly familiar, and not, I suspect, a voice that deserves the authority I've given her.

This week my job is to notice all the judgments -- both internal and external -- I feel; to just pay attention to them, to explore them as I did this morning's spate of vituperation -- and to find ways to respond to them with courage, energy, presence, heightened awareness -- all those responses that should be supporting us when we are under attack. Whatever you may think about those words -- judgment and attack -- it's clear they elicit different responses, and that the responses to judgment have been disabling me for years. So surely it will be worth my time to be more conscious about listening and evaluating.

Hmm. It should be an interesting week...

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Self-judgment and the balance of power

Earlier this week I met with my graduate studies advisor, and returned armed with a number of books on organizational development and systems theory, so my daytime reading (as opposed to my morning reading) has most recently been all about positive and negative feedback loops.

To give a very brief summary (so as not to overwhelm either you or this post), we start with the basic assumption that things are always changing. A negative feedback loop helps to maintain stability in spite of changes. It's a bit like riding a bicycle: you feel yourself start to wobble, and you correct for that. A shift happens, and something in the system compensates, negating the change so stability is restored.

A positive feedback loop, on the other hand, accelerates change and growth. The simplest example is to think of money gathering interest, or rabbits multiplying: basically, the more you have, the more you get.

Okay. So then, this morning, in Soul Without Shame, I read about the difference between attack and judgment. When most animals -- including humans -- are attacked, Brown says, unless the threat is extreme or overwhelming, they respond immediately with increased awareness, energy and presence: that whole adrenaline rush thing. But when we feel that we have been JUDGED, we have a tendency to react (as I did in that incident I described yesterday) by becoming sluggish and constricted, pulling into ourselves.

When you are criticized, what do you do? If you produce a poem or a work of art, and someone in authority says it's not good enough for publication or display, what do you do? Ideally, if it were me, I would like to get energized by that response, to see it as an opportunity for growth, and say, "Thank you so much for that feedback. Can you tell me anything specific about what didn't work for you, and how I might improve it?"

But more often I turn the attack into a self-judgment: they didn't like it, therefore I am no good as a poet/artist/photographer; I'll never amount to anything (shrink, shrink, constrict). And OMG, Byron Brown explains WHY THAT HAPPENS!!!

"It is important to recognize that self-judgments served a very useful purpose for you as a child...The sense of invasion, rejection, or hurt caused by the parent's critical energy was often overwhelming to your sensitivity. So distancing from yourself (self-rejection) dulled your awareness of the attack to help you survive what was intolerable or unstoppable. In extreme cases of abuse and trauma, the only way to survive was to completely dissociate from reality in the moment. ...Your engagement with judgment is a mild form of dissociation, in that you lose touch with the experience of being attacked and the resulting damage. Instead, you take on the content of the judgment and the judge's perspective of what is important, and the instinctual movement to respond appropriately is blocked."

Okay. So hang with me a moment here, and let me explain this connection I'm seeing. By perceiving and interpreting an attack as a judgment, we essentially create a negative feedback loop for ourselves and negate the possibility of change. We go rolling along on our creative path, we create something slightly new and different, we get maybe a little excited about it, someone comes along and puts it down, we go into it's-no-good/I'm-no-good mode, and pull back from that exploration, returning to our previous stable -- if unfulfilling -- state.

But if we instead perceive the judgment as an attack, and respond appropriately with increased energy and presence, then we can gather data about how to improve this new and different thing we have created, then create more (and, presumably, new and improved versions) of these things, then it becomes a positive feedback loop, more about growth and change and risk and potential than about maintaining a steady -- if self-defeating -- state.

It seems to me that the primary reason to retreat into self-judgment rather than rising to the occasion has to do with this notion of unless the threat is extreme or overwhelming. Doesn't that mean that these self-defeating behaviors may be about a sense of powerlessness, or at least about perceived imbalance of power? Could it be that the very sensitivity that enables us to respond to our environment with art, poetry, and music also makes us hyper-sensitive to power imbalances and then disables us with self-judgment when we perceive ourselves to be under attack? And wouldn't it also be true that victims of abuse, having already gotten into the habit of dissociation, would be even more prone to self-judgment?

Interestingly enough, it says in my book, Systems 1: an Introduction to Systems Thinking, that power is a positive feedback loop "which has created problems for people since before the beginning of civilization... Because power can accumulate so rapidly, any society which is trying to avoid a dictatorship must find ways to control and restrain this positive feedback loop. In fact, democracy as we know it today is a direct result of a series of inventions (like free elections and independent judges and civilian control of the military) which people have learned through painful experience are necessary for controlling this tendency for power to accumulate in one place."

So. The challenge for me, and for each of us as artists and as individuals, is to come up with mechanisms to control this tendency for power to accumulate in one place -- or at least, in a place outside ourselves. I find myself thinking of those wonderful words from Eleanor Roosevelt: "No one can make you feel inferior unless you let them." But how can we get -- and remain -- strong enough to NOT "let them"?

It seems to me there are two obvious answers which also explain why you and I find ourselves together on this page: faith, and community. We support and empower one another, and find strength -- and empowerment -- in our sense of relationship with the Divine. And now I see why those words from The Seeker's Guide which I quoted in last Wednesday's post -- God connects, relates, weaves all things together as if one -- become so important and resonate so clearly: if all things are one, then there can be no imbalance of power. And then growth and change can happen in a stable and balanced way. Which would all be good!

Friday, June 11, 2010

Uncovering the child within

Yesterday, in talking with a friend about this quest to open the inner tomb, I realized that in my listmaking a particular theme had emerged; a reluctance to acknowledge my gifts or put myself forward.

And then this morning, in Soul Without Shame, Byron Brown described his thought processes around a moment when he paused in writing the book and began to worry he wouldn't finish it. The parallel between his self-doubt and my own was strong enough that I decided to spend some time looking at the problem, and almost immediately I was drawn to look at an incident that happened several years ago.

(Warning: this is a long story; you may just want to skip this post, or move to the last 3 paragraphs... But I need to walk through it to get to whatever truth lies beneath.)

I had taken a dear friend, a gifted artist, to Orcas Island with me for a weekend, and we spent our time wandering around the island with our cameras. She was particularly taken with the grasses around Cascade Lake and took lots of photos of them, and about a week after we returned home we went out for coffee and she showed me the images she'd gotten back from the photo shop.

The pictures were almost all of grasses at the water's edge; a bit like this one (taken on that same trip) but sometimes the grasses were thicker, or there were red blades mixed in with the green, or there was some unusual texture in the water. Being the amazing artist she is, she could see in the images all kinds of potential for paintings she wanted to do, but -- not being an artist but a photographer -- all I could see was clutter. I can photograph it, but I have a preference for simplicity -- which is one reason I love her paintings, which are magnificent and very simple -- and I can't achieve that with my camera.

In my family we have a phenomenon we call "crowd blindness" -- if we are in a crowd, we glaze over and can't seem to distinguish one person from another, and, specifically, we can't find EACH OTHER in a crowd, even if the other we're looking for is in plain sight. I felt that same helplessness looking at her pictures: I couldn't see the beauty she saw. And I made the mistake of telling her: "I just can't see it. I don't see what you see; I'd never have shot these pictures because I just can't see what you see."

My friend left for vacation shortly after this coffee, and life kept getting in the way after she returned so a couple of months elapsed before we met again for coffee. But when we did meet, on a sunny summer day, sitting outside our favorite coffee shop, I learned it hadn't been life that was getting in the way, but her fury. Apparently she had taken my inability to see as a criticism, and she spent our entire time snarling at me for having been so condescending about her images, even saying things like "I went to art school, and I'm a better photographer than you'll ever be."

I apologized repeatedly and tried to explain, but she couldn't take that in, and so the damage was done and the friendship never really recovered. Which was my fault, really -- not hers. Once some time had elapsed, she began reaching out to me again, but I never really felt safe with her after that; never felt I could be honest about myself, my likes and dislikes. And thinking about that incident this morning, I realize that unsafe feeling still colors my existence here, because it has echoes that resonate over a number of other incidents that date all the way back to my childhood, all of which have in common a single theme: when I speak out of what I believe to be my own wisdom, I either fall flat on my face or come under attack.

The child in me -- the one that longs for love, affection, respect, and recognition -- is repeatedly devastated by these incidents, and always surprised. And so her reluctance to fully engage and claim her strengths has grown over the years, and as I look at her now and coax her out (she's usually willing in the context of home and family) I see she's developed a permanent stoop from being curled in the fetal position so much of the time. She's convinced there's some piece of life and interaction that she just doesn't get, and that it's far safer to stay curled beneath her shell.

But I think I'm going to hold her hand and invite her to list all those incidents -- and, trust me, they are numerous (don't worry; we will not recount them all for you) -- to see if, together, we can get to the bottom of this problem and find a way for her to rediscover some of her courage.

And now I must go and say goodbye to the daughter who is leaving for the summer -- to work at a camp on Orcas Island. Perhaps later I'll go up and visit her, and revisit the lake where these photos were taken, to find a moment of healing...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ask and it shall be given

Yesterday I posed this question: who or what is it that lies buried in the tomb within? And how amazing is this, that just in asking, answers begin to come?

The ferry Wenatchee was out of service yesterday, so our ferry schedule was cut in half, with every other run canceled. This meant -- since I had a 3:00 appointment with my advisor in Seattle -- that I actually had to leave home at 11:45, which (because all the boats were carrying a double load of passengers) put me near the end of the line for the 12:20 ferry -- which was running 18 minutes late -- which put me into Seattle 2 hours ahead of schedule. (There WAS no 1:10 ferry, and the 2:05 would not have gotten me in in time.)

That was probably more than you needed to know. But suffice it to say I had lots of extra time on my hands, so I brought along a notebook intending to research this who-is-in-the-tomb problem. I started by working on the assumption that it might be about the death of a dream, so I listed all the dreams I've had for my life (that I could think of) that might have fallen short.

But even as I made the list I could see, not just the ways they've fallen short, but the ways they have been realized. So I made a second set of lists, one for each dream, listing the ways they had come true and the ways they had not. And without even walking through all of them, a pattern immediately became apparent: in each case what was missing was some sort of recognition or affirmation -- and in most cases it was a relative affirmation.

For example: I dreamed from the time I was young of becoming a writer, and am disappointed that I haven't been published. But actually I have been published, but some part of me is saying "Yes, but...", as in "Yes, but that was just articles" and "Yes, that was a book, but you were asked to write it and there's no wide distribution" and "Yes, but that was just self-publishing" and "Yes, but that's just a blog."

About the time I was coming to this realization the ferry arrived, and I got busy dealing with traffic, etc. and set my concerns and discoveries aside (and tore the lists into tiny pieces and stuffed them in my purse).

Continuing ferry challenges meant I missed the 4:40 back from Seattle, so was doomed to wait for the 6:20 (the 5:30 having been canceled); I spent my time reading textbooks on systems theory given to me by my advisor. When I finally got home at 7:30 (see? living on an island sounds so romantic, but it does have its challenges!) it was to find the book about super-ego that I'd ordered Tuesday after hearing about it in class had arrived: Byron Brown's Soul Without Shame: A guide to liberating yourself from the judge within.

My daughter was lounging on the couch in the living room, finishing the last of the Harry Potter series before heading off for her summer as a camp counselor (at least ONE of the five of us will have an income!) so I decided to join her, and settled into my favorite rocker to see what Byron Brown had to offer. And this is what I read in the very first chapter:

"When you feel lifeless, unchanging, and at the mercy of external forces, you are no longer aware of your soul nature...This soul loss is often not noticed until you begin to feel your experience pervded by a lack of substance or inner meaning. When this happens, you have come to a point where your identity is so much about familiar forms that you have lost all contact with the living, dynamic substance of who you are. There's no juice left in your life. You find yourself saying, "this can't be all that I am. There must be more to life than this." Many people consider this indicative of a midlife crisis. In fact, it is the cry of your soul reminding you of your soul nature."

Brown goes on to explain that part of how this happens is tied in to your own expectations and demands for yourself; that the hunger for affirmation and respect cannot be met by external forces but rather is a sign of your own inner sense of a lack of self-worth, which is triggered by the constant criticism and comparisons of your inner judge.

Okay. BINGO! So now -- with Brown's help -- I get to go on a new journey -- to resurrect (or maybe just awaken) my own sense of soul. My first mission, he says, is to spend a day assessing my motivations for my activities and behaviors. And then, at the end of the day, I get to list them all and assess which are motivated by the desire to avoid criticism (both internal and external) and which are motivated by the desire to gain approval (again, both internal and external).

Hmm. I suspect I've been dancing around this subject ever since that list of 40 shoulds I made back on Ash Wednesday. But I'm psyched: the connection has been made, a new opportunity has opened, my meditation was rewarding this morning in a way it hasn't been for a while, and it feels like there's a little light flowing into the tomb.