Sunday, October 31, 2010

Monsters for Halloween

It's Halloween, and on Prairie Home Companion this morning (heard as we were heading in to our favorite coffee shop) they listed a few of the scarier demons that could come to your door, including an IRS representative, demanding receipts.

We all have our own ideas of scary demons -- the things we fear most, the things that trigger us and upset us.  I spent my lunch break, in fact, reading about some aspects of this challenge in Parker Palmer's observations about the Five Shadows of Leadership (from his book, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation).

He calls his list "a bestiary of shadow-casting monsters," and my homework was to read about them and think about where I'd encountered them, and to think about practices that organizations and individuals can put in place to to address or “disrupt” the assumptions and behaviors that reinforce them.

So of course it seems only fitting that as soon as I finished that exercise -- it being Halloween and all -- a couple of my own monsters have peeked out.  So now I get to deal; to clarify what's true and what's not, to assess whether these demons are internal or external, and to figure out how to cope; how to disrupt the automatic assumptions that have leaped forward. 

Not fun.

But then, it's Halloween, and the monsters are prowling!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Going with the flow...

Lighten up! says Pema Chodron in Comfortable with Uncertainty.  "It's sometimes helpful just to change the pattern.  Anything out of the ordinary will help.  You can go to the window and look at the sky, you can splash cold water on your face, you can sing in the shower, you can go jogging -- anything that's against your usual pattern.  That's how things start to lighten up."

Some days you just have to go with the flow.  I'm doing my best to see that as an invitation to lighten up.  Today, for example:  my husband is back from Oregon, so my morning coffee was mostly spent talking, not reading.  And then when I went to wash out my coffee cup I looked out the window (thank you, Pema) -- to see an eagle floundering in the lagoon!

So I went to get my camera and arrived on the deck just as he began doing this massive breaststroke to pull himself to shore.  Didn't capture that, but did get him after he pulled himself out of the water, and then again when he flew to the post at the end of our property to dry off.

Since there's a political sign next to that post -- a close friend is campaign manager for a woman who's running for re-election to the state legislature -- I of course had to send the photo to my friend.  (When she called to thank me, she confided that she'd just been praying for a good omen).  And then, since I was at the computer anyway, I decided to post it on the neighborhood blog.

Once that was done -- since my husband, who got in very late last night, had gone back to bed -- I went to meditate, but the cat wanted in, and when I looked out the window I saw this lovely scene of the sunrise reflected on the Olympics, so rounded up my camera again and went outside.  And by the time I returned from taking this and other photos like it (the cloud formations were glorious) the cat was knocking things over in the kitchen and the kids were up and heading into the shower.

So, yes, meditation didn't happen this morning.  But I did get a chance to do a little reading before my husband came downstairs, and this was my gift for today:

"I am... the divine expression exactly as I am, right here, right now.  You are the divine expression exactly as you are, right here, right now.  It is the divine expression exactly as it is, right here, right now. Nothing, absolutely nothing, needs to be added or taken away.  Nothing is more valid or sacred than anything else.  No conditions need to be fulfilled.  The infinite is not somewhere else waiting for us to become worthy... All is just as it should be, right now.  Not because it is a potential for something better, but simply because all that is is divine expression." -- Tony Parsons, in 365 Nirvana.

So see?  It's all good!

Friday, October 29, 2010

Who are you right now?

I always seem to be teetering on the edge of now: I'm never -- or at least rarely -- fully here.

Thinking about last night's post this morning, I realize it has a fatal flaw: it's all about looking for signs.  And looking for signs is just another way we have of ignoring and devaluing now. 

"Oh," we think, "If this is true, maybe that's the direction I need to take to get to there."  But the problem is that there is someplace other than here -- which is really where we need to be.

When will I learn -- and fully realize -- that what matters is not who I am becoming, or even who I was?  What matters --really matters -- is who I am right now.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

When you're at your best

Perhaps because I've been working toward the Patterns exhibit, images like this one fascinate me.

I get that they're not great art, but I've always loved reflections, and reflections of patterned surfaces onto curved surfaces particularly interest me.  What happens to the lines?  Do they become concave, or convex?  Do they lengthen, or shorten?  Smudge together or separate?  And what happens to the colors?

Which is just one more example of this curious phenomenon: when I have the camera in my hand, I become the sort of person I most want to be.

Curious, intrigued.
Present, aware.
Enriched, fulfilled.
Giving, and Sharing.

They always say you should marry the person who brings out the best in you.  Perhaps that should be true of career choices, too: don't do the thing you SHOULD do, or the thing you're GOOD at.  Do the thing that brings out the best in you.

Something to think about.  If you're out of work, and need to look for a job anyway, why not take the opportunity to look for a job that feeds your soul, makes -- or allows  -- you to be a better person -- whatever that might look like to you.

Watch what it is that you're doing when you feel REALLY REALLY good about yourself and who you are becoming.  And maybe -- unless you're under the influence of something mind-altering -- that could give you a clue about who you were born to be.  (Which is just one more reason you should stay away from mind-altering substances: they get in the way of knowing who you could be at your best.)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A chant for you

     Where I am
     Here I am
     Who I am
     What I am

 (PS: Just so you know, this is my poem, not a quote (someone asked). It came to me during this morning's meditation...)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

What is the pattern here?

So much of what we see is colored by who we are and what tapes are currently playing on our mind radios. I took this picture a few days ago, on my morning walk. I struggled with it at the time I took it, and I struggle with it still.

I love the colors, and loved the perfect radiance of the leaves, the way they flare out from the center, the way the light seems to create concentric circles on the upper leaf, the bold flare of those outstretched fingers...

But what I find it hard to love is the brokenness of the fronds that thrust up from the center -- and I think that's very telling; painfully indicative of my own perspectives at the moment.

Back last summer I spent some time reading Byron Brown's book, Soul Without Shame, and now I'm reading it again, more slowly, for my spirituality class. And this week's assignment has been to notice the judgments we make of ourselves.

... which means I can't help noticing the broken imperfect parts of me, the parts deep at the center that don't have the grace and flow of the rest of my more acceptable bits.  So when I look at this image, that center bit -- the pushiness of it, the torn and tattered edges of it, the lack of symmetry -- becomes a symbol of all that I judge in myself (and find wanting).

So here's the question:  what exactly IS that piece, and how did it come to look that way?  Is it something that was randomly chopped off because it stuck out?  Or is it something trying to be born, a new leaf (and if so, why are its edges already brown?)  I keep thinking that if I could understand the growth pattern of this plant, figure out what role that center thrust plays, I might better understand my own broken and imperfect bits.

Because right now they're sitting front and center, and making it difficult to appreciate the whole picture...

Monday, October 25, 2010

I didn't take the time

This is what I did not do yesterday: sit.

Which is not to say I didn't spend time in a chair; I spent LOTS of time in my office chair.  But I didn't sit.

I didn't walk, either: I set out once, but my cat followed me and the rain started up again, so I headed back.

And all day I felt disoriented, at odds with myself.  I could say it's because my husband is away.  But it's also because I didn't sit.  I didn't take the time to just be -- I was doing, doing, doing, all day; mentally running through my to-do list, creating new items, checking them off, wondering what I'd forgotten, worrying...

I did a lot of writing, and a lot of blog designing.  I took care of tasks I've been ignoring for months. 

But I didn't sit.

And, oh, the relief this morning, when I finally took the time to do the one thing I most needed to do yesterday. I took the time -- made the time -- to sit.  To breathe. To greet again the loving presence that rests within, that which warms me like an eternal flame.  To listen, and empty, and listen again.

And as peace descends, I wonder: what made me think I would even want to go a day without this?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Striving for new levels of possibility

This morning I decided that my readings in Margaret Wheatley's book, Finding Our Way: Leadership for an Uncertain Time had enough spiritual significance to serve as my morning coffee inspiration, so I set aside Pema Chodron and sat down with Margaret.

Wheatley discusses the two great organizing principles of life: the need for a creative individuality, and the need for cooperative community. In order to achieve both, she says, "Our communities must support our individual freedom as a means to community health and resiliency. And individuals must acknowledge their neighbors and make choices based on the desire to be in relationship with the community as a means to their own health and resiliency."

Given that I had just met with two friends earlier this week to discuss this very tension -- between individual and community -- this seemed a serendipitous moment.

As I continued reading in Wheatley's book, I came to this observation, which seemed to be a lovely antidote to the malaise and discouragement I've been feeling this last week about communities and how they work together:

"We can reach entirely new levels of possibility together, possibilities that are not available from soap box rhetoric.  To achieve this, we need to begin conversations about purpose and shared significance and commit to staying in them... We are capable of creating wonderful and vibrant communities when we discover what dreams of possibility we share.  And always, those dreams become much greater than anything that was ever available when we were isolated from each other.  The history of most community-organizing and great social change movements can be traced back to such conversations, conversations among friends and strangers who discovered a shared sense of what was important to them."

And so -- since I was beginning to think I needed a more distinct way to track my new practice of saying yes -- I decided to redesign a blog I started a couple of years ago, called What Did You Learn From This.  It was originally intended as a family exercise, but none of us have participated in it in over a year, so I've decided to revamp it as a place to track observations related to my schoolwork and the practice of saying yes -- which means I spent the morning re-designing it and bringing it up to date.

The image here -- a lamp in a hotel lobby -- seemed a good way to symbolize the idea of enlightened individuals in community, so that's the lead image for the blog, and we'll see where it goes.  Wish me luck!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Of time and change

A couple of nights ago I had a long conversation with my husband, asking him to serve as a sounding board while I attempted to get to the root of some of the resistance I'm currently feeling.

And one of the things he said that stuck with me -- and I don't remember how he said it, or what the context was -- is that we get caught up in time.  Some seeds take a long time to bear fruit, and our impatience for what is to come gets in the way of our appreciation of what is.  The urgency we feel creates a low-level anxiety and restlessness.

He told a story of one of his Indian bosses, barely in his thirties at the time, who said to him, "Oh, you Americans: you are conditioned by your TV shows to think everything will be resolved in half an hour."

And I'm thinking, as I look at the clouds reflected in the face of this beautiful clock, that maybe we get confused about living in the Now.  Living in the Now doesn't mean everything HAPPENS now.  Nor does it mean that what ISN'T happening now has no value.  I think it's more about letting go of our expectations for what could be and taking a minute to appreciate what is now. 

Yes, time is passing.  Yes, what we had hoped to accomplish hasn't happened yet, and the hands of the clock are still moving.  The pattern of clouds on the face of the clock is changing all the time.  But the clock is still there and still ticking -- just as it has been for over 100 years. Since 1908 when it arrived, this particular clock has been dunked into Puget Sound, tossed in a warehouse, and moved around here and there.  But it still stands, a patient reminder of endurance in the face of change.

Yes, I am eager for change.  And, yes, I can do my part to embrace change and move it forward.  But I also need to get better at valuing what is, and what has been, without too eagerly pushing for what is to come.  Because change will inevitably come, whether I push or not.  And if I am present to it now and conscious now, I may have a better chance of guiding it into safer, saner pathways.  Or -- maybe that's not my job.  Perhaps my job is simply to appreciate and enjoy, and in doing that I may have exactly the positive effect that change requires.

I don't actually know.  But it's certainly something worth considering.  As Boris Pasternak says in his poem, "After the Storm,"

It is not revolutions and upheavals
That clear the road to new and better days,
But revelations, lavishness and torments
Of someone's soul, inspired and ablaze.

And now I see -- in trying to track down a quote from St. Francis I heard yesterday -- that he has something to say about all this, too:  “True progress quietly and persistently moves along without notice.”
Yes.  Well, that's the hope, anyway!

Friday, October 22, 2010

When things get sticky

Though my children assure me it's been there "forever," yesterday was the first time I'd ever seen Seattle's Bubble Gum Wall.

Located on a back alley that leads up from the waterfront to Pike Market, the wall is literally covered with bubble gum -- often applied in very creative ways: stretched into words and symbols, or pressed down with pennies, pulled into drips -- it's pretty bizarre.

And it's a perfect illustration for today's topic -- when things get sticky.  Things have been sticky here for about a week now: nothing serious, nothing like the kinds of challenges so many of my friends are experiencing, just... sticky.  I'm being irritable, and judgmental, discouraged... and finding it hard to like myself.

In the midst of all this a note arrived, all unexpected, from a new reader who happens to live in the town I was born in, in Virginia.  And even though I'd felt the blog was suffering from my internal malaise, she took the time to write and say how much it meant to her.  Which was a lovely bright spot, but became even moreso when she encouraged me (since I was looking for something different to read that might help) to go back to Pema Chodron's Comfortable with Uncertainty.

It was a wonderful reminder of how kind the universe can be; that when you're twisting and turning in the throes of it, a gift can arrive to help.  So today's gift (thank you, Cheryl!) from Pema Chodron is this passage:  "Meditation practice isn't about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better.  It's about befriending who we are already.  The ground of practice is you or me or whoever we are right now, just as we are.  That's what we come to know with tremendous curiosity and interest.

Curiosity involves being gentle, precise, and open -- actually being able to let go and open.  Gentleness is a sense of goodheartedness toward ourselves.  Precision is being able to see clearly, not being afraid to see what's really there.  Openness is being able to let go and to open.  When you come to have this kind of honesty, gentleness, and good-heartedness, combined with clarity about yourself, there's no obstacle to feeling loving-kindness for others as well."

Ah.  I see.  I've been here before -- In fact, I notice -- from using the google search off to the left -- that I was reading and blogging about this book almost exactly 3 years ago -- and it's okay.  I just got sucked -- again -- into thinking that all this practice would make me a better person.  Nope.  Doesn't seem to be happening.  And I need to forgive myself for that, accept and love the cranky parts that are surfacing, embrace the stickiness.  Which is not all that enticing a prospect, I have to say -- but then, it never is.

But hating myself for not being a more compassionate person is not the answer.  It's time to walk in there "with tremendous curiosity and interest" and figure out what's got all my protectors on high alert.  Perhaps -- since I liked the dragons and princesses so much -- I need to think of myself as the prince, gently peeling back thorny vine after thorny vine as he struggles through to awaken Sleeping Beauty.  But then some part of me wonders: how did he know she would be there?

But maybe he didn't know.  Perhaps he just had to trust his instincts and keep plucking.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A gift from saying yes

Part of my homework for school (and there's a lot; I've been feeling a bit overwhelmed this week) is to come up with a personal practice for the duration of this term. 

Since I already read and walk and meditate and blog daily, I wasn't quite certain what additional practice I could or should take on.  But I've decided -- inspired partly by Patricia Madson's delightful little book on  Improv Wisdom, and partly because of a poem read to me earlier this week, about "living at the intersection of Now and Yes" -- that my practice will be to say "Yes" at least once a day despite an immediate inclination to say no.

My first yes got my husband on TV (!), the second yes just gave the dog a little more leeway than he usually gets on his walk, and today's yes had me walking on the ferry and meeting a friend for lunch in downtown Seattle -- something I've never done before! (and will do again tomorrow with my daughter).

I've found a gift in each releasing; this was one of the gifts from today's adventure. (There were many, actually but I especially liked this one.)  I can't wait to see what tomorrow brings (though it's supposed to rain cats and dogs, so who knows).  And thank you, Patricia, for continuing to inspire me! 

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

From dragons to princesses

We all have dragons in our lives -- difficult family members, contentious neighbors, irritating bosses and irascible government officials, to name a few familiar characters.  But we also have internal dragons -- shame, fear, guilt, anger, habits, and other shadows we're reluctant to confront which have a way of catching us unaware.

Cynthia Bourgeault, in my reading this morning from her latest book,  The Meaning of Mary Magdalene, has a wonderful quote to offer from Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet:

"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are really princesses who are waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.  Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

Now there's a thought worth exploring...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Blessings in abundance

Having finished Kornfield's A Path With Heart, I've returned to Cynthia Bourgeault's newest work, The Meaning of Mary Magdalene.  And in my reading this morning Bourgeault asserts that the three key tenets of Jesus' teaching are Kenosis, Singleness, and Abundance.

Kenosis, she says, is self-emptying.  "Self-emptying is what brings [Jesus] into human form, and self-emptying is what leads him out, returning him to the mode of glory.  The full realization of Jesus's divine selfhood comes not through the concentration of being, but through a voluntary divestment of it."

Singleness is about oneness, wholeness.  "Breaking through the egoic mind's compulsive need to divide the perceptual field into paired opposites (inside and outside, male and female, subject and object, and so forth),  consciousness simply coincides with its source and looks at the world through a single lens of wholeness."

But it was her description of abundance that really sang to me this morning, and it is abundance that is called forth for me by these wonderful flowers, part of an arrangement we were given to take home after the wonderful wedding reception dinner we attended this past weekend. "Abundance surrounds and sustains us like the air we breathe; it is only our habitual self-protectiveness that prevents us from perceiving it.  Thus, the real problem with any constrictive motion (taking, defending, hoarding, clinging) is that it makes us spiritually blind, unable to see the dance of divine generosity that is always flowing towards us.

...Since this point is so fundamentally counter-intuitive for our anxiety-prone minds, little wonder that Jesus takes every occasion to hammer it home.  In virtually all his teachings the fundamental leitmotif is an "over-the-top" generosity that leaves its recipients not only satisfied but bedazzled.  Think of all those well-loved gospel stories -- the prodigal son, the good Samaritan, the loaves and fishes, the water turned into wine, the woman with the alabaster jar, the fishing nets cast in the Galilean Sea -- and you'll see what I mean.  It is not a question of "adequate," or "barely enough," but of a fullness "pressed down, shaken together, running over" (Luke 6:18).

I don't know about you, but ... well, even though it's hard to wrap my anxious brain around that, even hearing this passage softens some resistance in me.  "Of COURSE!" I think, just before I sink back into wariness, and just for that tiny moment, and, again, looking at the generous gift of these flowers, I can feel -- however briefly -- how wonderful it would be if I could truly let go of all the worries and just accept the incredible bounty that is my life.

Maybe I need to get back into gratitude practice: you know, the one where every night before you go to bed you write down 5 to 10 things you're grateful for today?  Maybe that would get me over this hump I seem to be stuck on...

Monday, October 18, 2010

Time for desolation

Eaten by flame,
and smoked out into the sky.
This is most fortunate.
What's unlucky is not to change and disappear.
This way leads through humiliation and contempt.
We have tried the fullness of presence.
Now it's time for desolation.
Love is pulling us out by the ears to school.
Love wants us clean of resentment
and those impulses that misguide our souls.
We are asleep, but Khidr keeps sprinkling
water on our faces.
Love will tell us the rest 
of what we need to know soon.
Then we'll be deeply asleep
and profoundly awake
simultaneously, like cave companions.

 -- Rumi, from "The Knots Untie"

Sunday, October 17, 2010

This candleflame instant

As essence turns to ocean,
the particles glisten.

Watch how in this candleflame instant
blaze all the moments you have lived.
   -- Rumi

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A moment of peace

"The temple bell stops
But the sound keeps coming out of the flowers."

                                                          -- Basho

Friday, October 15, 2010

When the critical spirit arises

"Today is like every other day.
We wake up empty and frightened.
Don't open the door to the study
and begin reading.

Take down the dulcimer.
Let the beauty we love be what we do.
There are hundreds of ways 
to kneel and kiss the ground."
  -- Rumi

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, one of my assignments this week was to create a video about group facilitation.  After completing that task, I spent most of yesterday observing meetings; another class assignment.  It was a good reminder -- if not all that pleasant a reminder -- that the world in which I spend my days and the world my school prefers to describe is not necessarily the real world.

The facilitator I created for my video was named Gladys, and near the close of the video, after listing her strengths and what she attempts to foster in a group meeting, I listed the things she doesn't like: hidden agendas, lack of transparency, domineering speakers, lying, and sabotage.  And -- you guessed it -- I got to see them all in action in those meetings yesterday.

So here's my dilemma -- the very thing I began wrestling with in the first place, when I made that first version of the video: What do I do with what I know?

What do ANY of us do when faced with the difficult observations that come before us?  What I didn't like in my first video, those shadows I described walking across my face, was how I looked when I criticized something.  So my solution was to remove all critical statements from the presentation.  I don't necessarily like my face that much better (I had a boss who used to call me "rubber face" and now I see why!).  But at least it doesn't have that sort of holier-than-thou look that seems to accompany criticism.

And I'm not saying the people who did these things -- the blustering, the lying and the sabotage -- are bad people.  I've done my best, over time, to seek the good in each of them, and to interact with that.  But any time someone insists loudly and repeatedly that they are right and someone else is wrong, I grow suspicious.  And once my suspicions are awakened, it doesn't take long to begin to find the discrepancies between claims and truth.

But again: what do I do with that?  Gladys the Facilitator's job is to create and hold a safe space for dialog.  But how do we do that within ourselves?  And what is our responsibility to the truth?  Thinking about this, I remembered another post, a year and a half ago,  when I was wrestling with this same issue.  So I went back and looked it over, and found this wonderful quotation from Joan Chittister's book, The Cry of the Prophet.

"There is a major difference between a critic and a prophet. Critics stand outside a system and mock it. Prophets remain clear-eyed and conscientious inside a sinful system and love it anyway. It is easy to condemn the country, for instance. It is possible to criticize the church. But it is prophetic to love both church and country enough to want them to be everything they claim to be -- just, honest, free, equal -- and then to stay with them in their faltering attempts to do so even if it is you yourself against whom both church and state turn in their attempts to evade the prophetic truth of the time...

Criticize we must, but we cannot criticize what we do not love... The function of the prophet is not to destroy. The function of the prophet is to expose whatever cancers fester beneath the surface so what is loved can be saved while there is yet time...The horrible truth is that prophecy is not a harsh and heartless thing at all. Prophecy is unrequited love gone mad with hope."

Perhaps those shadows I saw walking across my face -- the ones that echo the shadows on my own mother's face when she was angry -- were not the harsh and heartless beasts they seemed.  Perhaps what made them difficult to watch was simply that exhausting tension -- of unrequited love gone mad with hope.

Which seems to me, as I look back over yesterday's people, to be the aching heart of compassion.

I still don't know what to do with what I know.  Perhaps I don't have to do anything: perhaps it's just my job to hold it all in hope and love while staying still engaged.  It would, quite frankly, be a lot easier to step outside the system to criticize and mock.  But I'll do my best to resist that impulse.

No one ever said it would be easy.  Which may be why this poem calls to me today.  I think, after all that venom, I prefer today to take refuge in beauty.  Perhaps I'll go outside -- and kneel, and kiss the ground.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The hidden gift of impermanence and instability

"The great story of awakening is not about loss or pain but about finding the harmony of our own song within the great song.  We can find peace and freedom in the face of the mystery of life.  In awakening to this harmony, we discover a treasure hidden in each difficulty.  

Hidden in the inevitable impermanence and loss of life, its very instability, is the enormous power of creativity.  In the process of change, there arises an abundance of new forms, new births, new possibilities, new expressions of art, music, and life-forms by the millions.  It is only because everything is changing that such bountiful and boundless creativity exists."
-- Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart

This picture would not exist if the lagoon did not empty and fill again; the heron can only find the fish when the water is shallow and flowing.  This picture would not exist if the sun did not set every night to rise again in the morning.  Those mountains would not exist if the earth had not decided to stretch and reform herself; these houses would not exist if people hadn't decided to move from their safe homes in the hills to the color and occasional terror of the waterfront.  Change is filled with blessings; allow it to fuel new hopes and dreams, new music and art, new forms, new births, and new possibilities for you.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Out of the shadows

I spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening attempting to create a 5 minute video of myself reflecting on what I learned in class last Saturday.  Believe me: the worst of it was NOT having to master the new technologies involved!

As I'm sure you can imagine, the most difficult part of the process was having to watch myself speaking.  I'm used to hearing my own voice (I did a radio show back in my youth) so that wasn't difficult.  But watching my face.  Ouch.  It was like every shadow I own was out in plain sight, marching across and through my facial expressions -- and the shadows seemed to WAY outnumber the parts of me I'm used to seeing in the mirror; the friendly more youthful parts.

So it's not surprising that my dreams were rich in symbolism.  In one there were a bunch of women standing in the shadows, some veiled, some not, and there was a faint light streaming in over them from a crack somewhere, illuminating here a nose, there a chin... mostly they were in the dark, talking quietly among themselves, as if they were waiting in the wings of the Vagina Monologs before appearing in that piece about the Burqas...

And in another I was in a plane, landing at an airport somewhere in the midwest, where I grew up; I was there to deliver a key of some sort, but wasn't quite sure to whom, or how long I'd scheduled to stay.   I'd lost my ticket and forgotten my cellphone, and all the phones in the airport -- or was it a bank? -- seemed to be either broken or busy...

So then I woke up, thinking the clue to what was beginning to look like a really painful personality split must be buried somewhere in my midwestern past.  Then I looked out the bathroom window to see this curious pattern engraved upon the sky -- and couldn't help but wonder at it.  Am I the tree being hit with that flaming zinger from above?  Is the cross supposed to comfort me?

I don't know, and don't really feel like presuming to guess.  I think I'll just trust it will all come together, that there's probably some work I need to do, it might sting a bit, I need to get conscious about loving all those shadowy pieces of me --

And it's all good.

No, Really!  Just a little unnerving sometimes...

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Stepping beyond expectations

I'm not quite sure why this image sang to me this morning.  Perhaps it has to do with a phone call from my daughter yesterday evening, complaining that the children's furniture store where she works has nothing orange: everything is pink and blue.

I suggested that this was an excellent opportunity to get to know some of the basics of merchandising: that there's a high probability that the folks who come to her place of business actually WANT pink and blue, and that that's why the owners offer things in those colors.

... which makes me think about how our expectations so often dominate what we see.  If I expect a day to go well, it often does -- and if I expect a flight to be bumpy, it often is.  How much of that is because our expectations arise out of experience and judgment?  You know, the "this is how it went before so it will probably go that way again" phenomenon, and the voice that says, "you did NOT take time to adequately prepare for this meeting, so chances are it will go poorly." 

And how much of that is just that we don't live in the moment, don't approach life with optimism and an open mind, don't (as my husband is fond of saying) "expect the best and prepare for the worst"?  But if we begin to take responsibility for those feelings, do we then also begin judging ourselves for our bad attitudes?  How do we get out of this cycle?  Somehow (and this is an echo of yesterday's post) we need to get in touch with the beloved within, that part of us that understands how much we are loved, how much we have been given, so that we can be more present and open to our surroundings.

Or we can listen to the wisdom of the Tao, quoted in my reading in A Path With Heart this morning:

I have just three things to teach:
simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and in thoughts,
you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.

Thus the wise man residing in the Tao
sets an example for all beings.
Because he doesn't display himself,
people can see his light.
Because he has nothing to prove,
people can trust his words.
Because he doesn't know who he is,
people recognize themselves in him.
Because he has no goal in mind,
everything he does succeeds.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Turning the picture upside down

"Kindness is based on a fundamental notion of self acceptance, rather than guilt, blame or shame for the ignorant acts we've committed or the fears that still remain within us... this self-acceptance is at least half of our spiritual practice.  We are asked to touch with mercy the many parts of ourselves that we have denied, cut off, or isolated."
  -- Jack Kornfield, A Path With Heart

I read this passage this morning, and thought how perfectly it turns all our pre-conceived Christian notions of self-sacrificing kindness upside down. Which is not to say this is a completely new concept: I'm sure I've mentioned before the words of the dear priest who counseled me through the painful ending of my first marriage -- "You can't pour out of an empty cup."

And one of my other favorite variations on that theme is that important admonition from the stewardesses on every plane flight: "Put the oxygen mask over your own face first."

But as I look at this quotation today, I begin to suspect that I may need to begin approaching this from another angle.  Yes, self-care is important; yes, it's good to be making sure I balance my time wisely and  keep my soul and body nourished.  And over the years I have gotten better at those things, and at asking for (and knowing) what I need.

But I'm thinking that a lot of the kindness I've seen and experienced over the years seems to flow out of the dark places in people's souls, and that that kindness seems often to be fueled by a sense of indebtedness, or out of a need for reparation for past sins, imagined or otherwise.  Which probably means -- given the human capacity for projection -- that my own kindnesses have also tended to flow from that space, which prevents me from even seeing the other types and sources of kindness -- which could in turn explain some of my trust issues?

What if we were to turn that whole picture upside down, and allow acceptance to flow into and embrace our own dark spaces (which we see in this picture goes against the natural gravitational pull) so that then, in transforming those dark places, the acceptance itself is also transformed, and flows naturally out again as a selfless, agenda-less kindness that offers itself to others free of expectation?

I think I may have caught myself giving out of that space over the course of this past weekend -- and I have to say it felt very different.  Clearer, somehow, and free-er.  Which is not to say I didn't run into the usual distasteful self-aggrandizing voices in my head -- I'm not perfect, after all!  But they were muted, and easily silenced, and the overwhelming feeling I had was of joy and gratitude that I was able to be there and speak on behalf of love.

It makes me think of Logion 108 from the Gospel of Thomas:

Yeshua says...

Whoever drinks what flows from my mouth
will come to be as I am
and I also will come to be as they are,
so that what is hidden will become manifest.

Somehow,  in learning to accept and love myself as God does, I open myself in a way that allows God's love and generosity to flow into and through me to others, further transforming me as it flows.  At least, that's what it feels like.  Eventually -- to paraphrase the title of a book I remember from my days working in a children's library -- "I'll get there -- and I suspect it'll be worth the trip!"

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Restoring our spiritual vision

"We must remember that the world's current problems are fundamentally a spiritual crisis, created by the limited vision of human beings -- a loss of a sense of connection to one another, a loss of community, and most deeply a loss of connection to our spiritual values."
--Jack Kornfield,  A Path With Heart

When I went looking for an image to accompany this morning's quotation, this one called to me.  I think the initial impact was those pilings in the foreground; they had a sort of connect-the-dots feel for me.

There's also the loneliness of those three boats, and the odd sense we get from the one in the foreground of a family set adrift -- fortunately in a relatively calm sea.

And then there's the majesty of Mount Baker in the distance; something that calls to us and reminds us that the world is a much larger place than it appears to be when we remain too focused on our immediate surroundings.

But we know from the pilings that there was once a dock in this place.  So clearly we are standing on dry land, looking out across the water.  And whether we are anticipating a journey, welcoming incoming guests, or merely passing by, we are drawn inexorably to the space between, that which connects the grounded world on which we stand with that which lies beyond.  In choosing to look up and out, we have the opportunity to expand our vision, to build a sense of connection to those adrift in the boat, and to embrace all that which circles and defines our horizon.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into it; it's not, after all, Great Art;  just a snapshot of a single moment in time.  But perhaps it's an indicator of why human beings create art, and continue to surround themselves with art.  I'd like to think those urges arise out of a deep-seated longing to remind ourselves that we are part of a larger entity; a longing for a return to connection, compassion and community.

Which reminds me of Eckhart Tolle's wonderful words from his talk, Stillness Speaks:  "The purpose of all great art is to serve as a portal to the Sacred."  Perhaps that's the purpose of all life, as well.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Our role in the web

"Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.  We did not weave the web of life, we are merely a strand in it.  Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves."  -- Chief Seattle

I was talking with a friend during a break in class yesterday, and he mentioned that he had been in Chicago not long ago.  "I'm not, like, totally into recycling or anything," he said, "but it was really unnerving to stand there with a plastic bottle in your hand and have to throw it in the trash.  They just don't seem to do recycling there."

I understand that this could be a phenomenon unique to the particular family he was visiting, but it was a gentle reminder that not everyone approaches the world in the same way.  So when I encountered this quote this morning, I found myself wondering if the reason we in the Pacific Northwest are so passionate about recycling could be partially attributed to the influence of Chief Seattle.

Which then got me to thinking of a wonderful piece by Margaret Wheatley, entitled "What is our role in creating change?" in which she said "A leader is anyone willing to help, anyone who sees something that needs to change and takes the first steps to influence that situation.  It might be a parent who intervenes in her child's school; or a rural village that works to get clean water; or a worker who refuses to allow mistreatment of others in his workplace; or a citizen who rallies her neighbors to stop local polluters.  Everywhere in the world, no matter the economic or social circumstances, people step forward to try and make a small difference.

Because a leader is anyone willing to help, she adds, we can celebrate the fact that the world is abundantly rich in leaders.  Some people ask, "Where have all the leaders gone?"  But if we worry that there's a shortage of leaders, we're just looking in the worng place, usually at the top of some hierarchy.  Instead, we need to look around us, to look localy.  And we need to look at ourselves.  When have we moved into action for an issue or concern that we cared about?  When have we stepped forward to help and thereby become a leader?

The process that creates change in the world is quite straightforward.  We notice something that needs to be changed.  We keep noticing it.  The problem keeps getting our attention, even though most people don't notice that there's even a problem.  We start to act, we try something.  If that doesn't work, we try a different approach.  We learn as we go."

Which got me to thinking.  Where have I been a leader lately -- and what challenges have I noticed that I haven't taken the time to address?  Or have I even been noticing?

My job, over the next few months, will be to pay attention to those opportunities, perhaps even to act on them.

But I confess that this morning that just sounds exhausting...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Disarming the reptilian response

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each person's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility."
-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, quoted in Jack Kornfield's  A Path With Heart

My course reading this week has all been about the havoc we can create when we think we can see into one another's hearts; when we think we know what they are thinking and feeling and needing from us.  And even when we know to be careful NOT to do that, when we are consciously working to articulate our own thoughts and feelings and to be openly, trustingly curious about those of the people around us, we still retreat to old patterns when under fire.

My blogsister Maureen referred to that in a recent comment as "that old lizard brain," and Roger Schwarz in his book, The Skilled Facilitator, refers to it as "the unilateral control model."  But what each is describing is the natural human habit, in an embarrassing or psychologically threatening situation, of reverting to the old familiar defenses of controlling, not communicating, self-justification and demonization.

I find it reassuring to think I'm not the only fool who does that.  But it does sadden me to think that the more our lives have been filled with threatening situations, the more deeply ingrained these habits become -- and the more likely it is that we will be perceived by others as hostile, as enemies -- all of which seems to become a self-replicating spiral. 

And it occurs to me that this may be one of the primary purposes of consciously working to create a more compassionate response: that if we practice enough -- meditation, awareness, presence, forgiveness, hope, generosity -- we might awaken the true self deep within enough so that in those stressful moments it can respond from the heart instead of allowing the reptilian brain to jump in and start controlling.

That's the hope anyway. 

And how's that working for you?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Not yet -- but I'm working on it

"When happiness is equally dear to others and myself, 
then what is so special about me 
that I strive after happiness for myself alone?
When fear and suffering are equally abhorrent to others and myself,
then what is so special about me 
that I protect myself but not others?"

Shantideva, from Offerings (Oct. 8)

I keep this book, Offerings, by the candle I light before my daily meditation period, and somehow the page slipped ahead to tomorrow -- but it seemed to me to speak to the heart of the nature of compassion, and so I share it with you.

This image, from the ferry floor, is both a message to those who drive to be sure to make space for pedestrians and, it seems, a reminder to me that this statement from Shantideva -- or at least the concept it articulates -- needs to remain foremost in my mind at all times.  I'm still working on that.

Earlier today, a friend reported a rather mystical meditation experience. But when I asked, "So, does this mean you're now an enlightened being?"  She replied, "Nope.  Not yet!  But I'm working on it..."


Me, too.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Escaping undifferentiated fusion

School starts up again this weekend, so I've begun my readings for that, and this morning I found myself looking again at that tension between connectedness and separateness, but from a different perspective. 

I'm reading A Special Kind of Leadership by Ronald Short, and he's talking about that sort of morass that happens sometimes in families and organizations, when you know something needs to change, but when you try to talk about it things get all muddy and stuck, and you can't seem to climb out of where things are to how things could be.

Short calls that "undifferentiated fusion" -- meaning, essentially, that everyone is focused on what they THINK everyone else is thinking or needing, and no one is paying attention or speaking out of their own thoughts or needs.  And a lot of this confusion is tangled up with language.

If we persist in talking to ourselves using "You, it, they" language, we are essentially placing our sense of identity and well-being into the hands of others.  "It  is as though we place our internal activities outside our skins and heads... paste them like travel stickers on others, making them responsible... and the result within an organization is ongoing confusion, low trust, and a highly political environment where the same problems exist over long periods of time...  Not recognizing what is inside and what is outside is fundamental to the majority of problems we face."

But if we practice -- even in those constant internal monologues that go on -- using "I" language, correctly describing our experience of what's going on, we can become more responsible and accountable for what's happening.  

The first thing you notice about "I" statements is that you can't really argue with them.  But at the same time they provide important information that clarifies where you stand and what you're feeling -- your thoughts, feelings and desires -- so the other person can respond to real data instead of trying to figure out what you want, or worse still, projecting what THEY want onto you.

But "I" statements alone are not enough; you also need to be careful not to assume or project information about what others are thinking and feeling -- and if you are having a strong emotional response to something someone else said or did -- especially the kind of response I mentioned yesterday, indignation -- chances are good there's some projection going on.

Which means it's time to sit back and see if you can figure out what's actually being triggered by their behavior -- what in YOU is reacting, and why.  Chances are good your reactions are being triggered by some early experiences that have nothing to do with what's going on in the present.

I know.  At some level you know all this -- and so do I.  But we forget, and find ourselves going down that path all too easily.  And when we do, chances are good we're dragging a few other folks down with us.

So it's good to be reminded from time to time.  Yes, we are all connected.  But we are also unique, and different, with unique and valuable perspectives.  But those perspectives can only help make a difference in the world when we take the time to pay attention, to listen to our inner voices, to figure out what is ME and NOW and then articulate it.  That kind of clarity can work just as a good stump or a rock could work in this picture: it gives others something sturdy and stable to stand on, which helps us all climb out of the undifferentiated muck that sometimes seems to suck us in.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An ignoble truth

For some reason this image looks like my family to me: at one end we're all connected, but we're also all headed in different directions.

But I suppose that's true of all of life, when you think about it: at some level, we are all connected, all tied to the same source, and at another we're all looking in different directions, headed for different destinies, and bringing different gifts and understandings to the equation; all seeing things from different perspectives, and even through different-colored glasses.

What seems to be tricky is balancing that understanding, holding the awareness of connectedness in tension with the acceptance of our differences.  And think of the number of times we've wanted just to cut the ties to one or the other of the boats closest to us!

My husband has been reading about the Ig Nobel awards, and sent me a link to this curious article this morning, entitled "You Bastard: A Narrative Exploration of the Experience of Indignation within Organizations."  I'm certain he thought it was funny and sort of obscure -- kind of like the time he brought me a book on the perils of perfectionism -- but I found myself wanting to read more, especially when I read the last line of the abstract: "It concludes by considering how the process of being indignant can produce conflicting emotions of joy and guilt for those involved."

What is it about humans, that we delight so in self-righteous indignation, in (can you tell this is a theme of mine?) demonizing those who are different or see things differently?  I know I'm not immune, especially since the books  I've been reading lately have reminded me of some unpleasant work environments I've experienced over the years.  But I understood then, and still believe now, that many of the problems I encountered in offices over the years might have been lessened if people -- including me -- weren't so inclined to focus on their differences, and could just learn to accept, appreciate, and learn from them in the manner described in Philippe Rosinski's wonderful book, Coaching Across Cultures.

Yesterday I discovered the website for the Gates Foundation, and I was delighted to discover that all that money is devoted to the principle that "All Lives Have Equal Value."  It seems a perfect reflection of my own convictions, and a really wonderful root cause to address.  Surely if we could somehow build more awareness of equal value, a lot of the challenges around hunger, health, injustice, war and oppression, whether at the personal, corporate, national or global levels would have a chance of resolution.

Perhaps that's just a dream.  But I'd like to think that a little determined idealism could go a long way...

Monday, October 4, 2010


We spent yesterday evening at the home of a couple my husband met recently as part of his volunteer work.  When they first extended their invitation, I had resisted going, partly because I didn't really know them but primarily because it was to be a make-your-own-sushi evening.

It may seem odd that I live on an island and practically ON the water, but am allergic to seafood... but the fact is that sometimes even the scent of seafood can make me feel queasy, so sushi didn't seem like a good option for me.  So I suggested my husband attend without me, and he duly relayed my concerns.  But our hosts promised there would be other things I could put in my sushi, and so we went.

It was an amazing evening.

The three other couples were delightful, the fish was so fresh I had no difficulties with the aroma, and no one seemed to mind that I wasn't wrapping my rice and veggies in the seaweed so thoughtfully provided, but rather eating it straight.  The conversation was fascinating, and the evening ended with a koto performance by our hostess, who had been playing the instrument since she was a child of 6 in Japan.  The koto is a beautiful instrument -- for both eyes and ears -- and after drinking in the vision of it I just closed my eyes, sat back, and let its music wash over me.

How often does this happen for you -- that the very thing you resist turns out to offer exactly what you need?  There I was, feeling so rushed and harried -- worried about taking time off to socialize when I had so many "more important" things to do -- and the koto music brought me so much peace.  It reminds me a bit of what used to happen when my children were little and would interrupt me in the midst of some "important" project.  Though it was hard to break away, I would do it, minister to them with whatever presence was required -- listening, a bandaid, a hug, an explanation -- and in the process they would have given me far more than I'd been asked to give them; a sense of peace, of groundedness, that no to-do list will ever provide.

I wondered this morning how I could possibly repay such a gift, and somehow was led to this photo: it feels to me the way I felt in that space, with those people, that food, that music.  Peace.  Groundedness. And a kind of liquid presence that washes away all that stress and leaves behind... well... grace.  I can't think of a better word for it.

Grace. Just Grace.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Trusting peace will come


I just have to come out and say it.

I'm going through a spiritual dry spell.

My art doesn't seem to be suffering; this is a piece I created just this morning out of a photo of the remains of a recent boat fire on our street.

But I think my heart is... if not suffering, then... maybe buried?  I'm having trouble tapping into the depths, connecting with that warm sense of spirit that usually fuels me.  And as I look at this image, I see it has a certain Van Gogh quality to it; sort of a frenetic attempt to render something struggling within me.

Part of it is the busy-ness of my life right now; I'm feeling a little frantic about my to-do list.

But I think the root of it is that I'm not saying something that needs to be said, and those unsaid words are swirling around and fermenting, bubbling inside me.  I don't think it's time to say it yet: I need to get more clarity on exactly what it is, what needs to be said, and how to say it clearly in a way that balances love and power.  But that clarity needs to come from a place of peace, not from the swirling, and the swirling is keeping me from dropping down into the peace.

Does any of that make sense?  I feel so disconnected I can't be sure.

But what I DO know is that that peace is still there; that heart knowing that will guide me through to right words is still there, rooted deep inside me, ready and waiting to provide the sustenance and the answers I need.  So clearly faith is not the issue.  But all the usual things I can do to get me back into that space  -- walking, and reading, and meditating, and helping others, and working with my photography -- none of it seems to be getting me there.

Hmm. Perhaps it's enough to just be in the midst of it, to accept that there will be times like this: just keep breathing and trust that this, too, will pass.

...and it's all good.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Learning to notice

It was a glorious morning, so I took my camera with me on my walk today -- mostly because the last time I walked at sunrise there was so much I wanted to photograph!

Part of what I'm doing when I walk is retraining myself to walk with my head up, instead of looking at my feet.  Which means I'm noticing a lot more.  So when I read this poem in this afternoon's readings for my next course, I decided I really needed to share it here -- because it's all about the importance of noticing; of being present.

The range of what we think and do
is limited by what we fail to notice.
And because we fail to notice
that we fail to notice
there is little we can do
to change
until we notice
how failing to notice
shapes our thoughts and deeds.

RD Laing, Knots