Monday, January 31, 2011

Music as a way to deepen focus

Whether I'm speaking as a photographer or as a contemplative, I cannot really carry out my tasks without some awareness of the importance of focus.

For years, working often in low light situations with long lenses, focus was a real issue for me as a photographer, and I was forced to discard numerous images because they were out of focus when I wanted and needed them to be sharp.

Now, of course, with digital cameras, auto focus, and Vibration Reduction, focus is less of an issue for me, even though my own vision has become somewhat less reliable.  And now it's more of a challenge to find ways to SOFTEN focus; to convey shapes and colors without getting distracted by specific identities.

... which is not so different from my struggles in meditation: it's hard to keep my mind unfocused; hard to rein it in, to keep it from galloping off like a puppy after every butterfly of a thought that flutters across my mental horizon.

So it was with great joy that I discovered the power of music this morning.  I've always loved music: both my parents were musicians, my first husband was a musician, and I've been singing in choirs and other choral groups since I was two.  But until this morning I've not tended to include music as part of my meditation practice.  Today, however, I embarked on the Spirituality and Practice website's course on Interspiritual Meditation, and we are invited to begin every day with a guided meditation that they provide.  That guided meditation is delivered to the accompaniment of sacred music from every major discipline -- The Monastic Choir of St. Peter's Abbey, Camille Helminski, Carlos Nakai, Swami Atmarupananda doing a sanskrit chant, and the Monks of Gyurme Monastery doing their deep intonations -- and punctuated throughout with a deep gong.

Omigosh -- I had forgotten how much deeper music can take me.  And to go into that deep space with such clear intentions is exactly what I've been hungering for: suddenly my focus has been moved from the yammering of my egoic brain into that deep unitive space where I can begin to care for all of creation.

So, on the off chance that you might have been struggling with focus as well, and might be as susceptible to music as I am, I heartily recommend you try meditating to music a few times, just to see if it helps.  I also heartily recommend this e-course.  I'm really looking forward to hearing from all these spiritual masters about finding ways to unite various spiritual disciplines.  But at this point I feel I've already gotten my money's worth -- just with this one meditation.

Hmm.  Maybe I'll start meditating TWICE a day instead of just in the mornings... it could get addictive... 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Step 3 of Interspiritual Meditation: Transformation

I found these intriguing circles when I was out on my foggy day last week, and can't help but be curious about them.  How did they come to be here?  Do they have a purpose?  And what -- if anything -- do they have to tell me about ... well ... anything?

My first thought -- on looking at the image now -- is that I didn't spend enough time with these circles; didn't pay enough attention when composing this image.  I know, from having prepared the talk I'll be giving later this week, that composition is one of the key steps of contemplative photography, and is critical to the latter parts of the process.

And as I look at the image now, my first thought is that the circles make perfect frames.  Which makes me think of this class I'm taking on metaphors, as we are learning that most of us view the world through metaphorical frames -- which allows us to focus on some aspects of the picture and ignore others.

So if these circles are frames, what are they framing?  Nothing in particular, at least, not in this image.  So I wasn't very conscious about that when I took the picture: I saw the circles as subjects in themselves, not as potential frames for other subjects.

But I also see that the larger circle might have at least served as a frame for the smaller one: surely there is some place I could have stood where I could look through the larger one and see the smaller one.  So then I wonder, if I did that, what would the smaller circle reveal?  Did the people who created the circles set them up so if you get them lined up something would magically appear? 

So now I want to go back and look again.  Which is often true for me: the first time I see something, I know there is a photograph there, but I don't always have -- or take -- the time to explore; I just snap and move on.  Sometimes I return to a site again and again because it seems to have many layers of information, or because different seasons or different times of day reveal different aspects of the story each site has to tell.

Which is why a meditation practice can be so rewarding, I think: we return to the same place, to the same room, the same chair; to the same brain and the same heart; to the same thought patterns and emotions, day after day, and with each conscious decision to sit with what is, something new is revealed, something new is awakened.  It's really about conscious attention, and training us to be more consciously attentive, more present, to ALL of the parts of our lives.

So when I look at this photo, do I berate myself for not taking the time to "do it right?"  No.  What happens here -- if I am conscious in THIS moment, when I am looking at the image, is I see the invitation it contains.  I recognize my own fallibility, but do not berate myself; I simply smile and say I still have a lot to learn about being present -- and I make a commitment to return and explore the possibilities of the scene in more depth.

It's a bit like the third step of Interspiritual Meditation, which is Transformation, and consists of the following steps (which I've interpreted relative to this photo):

1.  Imagine the ideal:  Well, ideally each picture would have something to say.
2.  Self-Assessment: How did I do with this one?
3.  Confession: I didn't spend enough time here, didn't notice the potential.
4.  Remorse:  I'm sad I wasn't more conscious, more attentive; often a problem for me.
5.  Forgiveness:  I  forgive myself and release the tendency to flagellate myself.
6.  Commitment: I resolve to go back and try again, to see more, and be more present.

See?  there are lessons and opportunities everywhere; we only need to take the time to see them...

Saturday, January 29, 2011

More than a mouthful

Here's a gull who's definitely bitten off more than she can chew; that's a starfish dangling from the corners of her mouth. When I was growing up, my mom had a phrase for that (being from the south, she had a phrase for everything, most quite a bit more colorful than this one): "Her eyes were bigger than her stomach."

I'm sure we've all had that experience at some point in our lives; have all known the existential terror of biting off more than you can chew.  Somehow we mostly manage to survive in such cases, but -- for me, at least -- what I seem to take away is not the memory and conviction that I'm a survivor but rather a wariness of ever again taking on more than I can handle.

Perhaps it's a sign of age, but I think I am becoming increasingly risk-averse.  But before I start berating myself for that, let me just say this: I'm thinking what's really happening here is that I have a better understanding of my own capabilities.  And, in addition, I've developed better boundaries: I know my tendency to pour myself into things, so I am careful to be conscious about reserving time for the things that are important to me: my family, my meditation time, my blog, my photography, my other creative endeavors, my time outdoors... which, I am finding, doesn't really leave a lot to spare -- there are, after all, only so many hours in a day.

Which means, I fear, that when I read most job descriptions I just feel... exhausted.  I know I should be seriously considering a return to the workforce, but that will obviously require some serious compromises.  And I've not yet found any position that excites me enough, or any organization that inspires me enough, to make me want to make those compromises.  I just keep thinking it ought to be possible to find a job that pays me to do what I already love doing.

Does that make me lazy?  Ridiculously idealistic?  Or just careful and wise?

My guess is it's probably somewhere in between.  Or maybe I just need some vitamins!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Plugging in to the Divine

I'm sure you're wondering why on earth I'm displaying this photo after raving about all the great fun I had taking pictures in yesterday's fog.

But actually -- this is one of the pictures I took yesterday.  And though lots of the others are quite lovely, and some may even be exhibit-worthy, this is the one that makes my heart sing.

I know.  I could probably never sell it.  I'll probably never even print it.  But is that what matters?  We were speaking (indirectly) of this a couple of days ago, two of my fellow meditators and I; of this constant urge we have to serve the world -- which is SO tangled up with ego, with wanting to be visible and appreciated.

And the fact is, we're already serving-- serving our children, our parents, our communities -- in a variety of less obvious ways.  And, in fact, we serve simply by opening to the Divine and allowing it to move through us.

So am I not actually doing the world a service by listening to my own heart, and modeling that for others?  Ram Dass says, in a tape of his on Conscious Aging, that death feels a bit like finally taking off a shoe that doesn't really fit.  That shoe could be anything: this life, this ego, this body... but that soul that's squeezed in there is vibrant, alive, lively; full of joy and wonder and enchantment.  That soul, I think, is what claps its hands in delight when it sees this photo -- so I want to laugh, and honor that, and post this here as a testament; to say that joy is still alive and well in me, and, well, maybe there's something in you that's equally giddy that will just light up when you see this -- not because it's a great photo, but because it speaks to something so deliciously real.

And if you don't like it?  Well -- that's okay, too.  Today I'm just having fun!

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Guilty pleasures

Now that our daughter's boyfriend has a job in Seattle, we're driving him to the ferry dock every morning --and working on finding an alternative solution acceptable to us all, as the morning trip provides a certain amount of disruption in our days.

Yesterday as we were driving in there was a fabulous sunrise, but by the time we reached the ferry dock the clouds had overtaken the sun and it had returned to being a typical gray northwest day.  But on the off chance that there might be something worth shooting, I headed down to Waterfront Park to see if there were any good boats there.

As it happens, there were only two -- both of them beautiful -- which meant there was a perfect opportunity to get an uncluttered photo like this one.  And I have to say: moments like this -- seeing them, shooting them, opening them up on my computer later, and sharing them with you -- the whole experience really feeds my soul.  It's like a drink for thirsty eyes.

So this morning, when I woke and noticed a fog rolling in, I tiptoed out of the bedroom and determined not to wake my husband and make him do the ferry drive, but rather to do the drive myself and spend the rest of the morning shooting.  And oh, my: what a pleasure that was, to prowl around this beautiful island and its spectacular waterfront vistas with my trusty little camera.  We had a blast together, my camera and I: it was like we were out on a date, rejoicing together at everything; giddy with love and gratitude for such a spectacular morning -- I even felt a little guilty when I finally returned home around noon with a full memory card and an exhausted battery.  (Oh, the symbolism!)

And why should that be?  Why would we humans associate pleasure -- even a pleasure whose ultimate goal is the sharing of visions -- with guilt?  It seems to me that if I'm doing what I love, and I love what I'm doing, and the end result is designated in advance as a gift ... what more could anyone want?

Not much, I'm thinkin'...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Imagining flight

As I believe I've mentioned before, I belong to a book group which meets Tuesday mornings, and this year we are working our way through Byron Brown's Soul Without Shame.  The book is all about the way we judge ourselves and others, and in yesterday's session we were getting into some very difficult concepts -- not hard to understand, just difficult to watch in yourself.

Which of course meant that I got to observe them in action almost immediately after I left class.  And at times like that -- when those feelings of judgment kick in -- my fight or flight response goes into overdrive.  I SO want to kick some butt, and SO hate that feeling in myself that I just want to fly away; to join some bird commune and take off for points south; preferably somewhere where the weather is warm and I don't have to feel this awful sense of responsibility -- not just responsibility for my own actions, but also responsibility for sharing whatever is honest in my re-actions.

I just haven't quite mastered that yet -- the job of speaking the truth about what we observe without somehow appearing to criticize the person you're observing/ speaking to.  And so I get all tangled up, riding the seesaw between "they should" and "I should."  Which wreaks havoc with my sleep, which just sets me more on edge... I'm somehow certain this may sound familiar to some of you dear readers...

So I like this image this morning.  Not only does it allow me to indulge my flight fantasy just a bit, but I also find it... well... uplifting.  I am one with the birds, slightly above the pull of the water, flying towards the light.  There is a lovely brief suspension in that, a moment to stop and breathe and set aside all these irritating vacillations.

And I'm grateful.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The stinky stuff

I love this picture: loved seeing it, loved shooting it, love the old-timey feel of it.  But the truth of the matter is that the lovely plume of smoke in the center is a paper mill, and, in the way of such things, stinks to high heaven.

Does that make this image less appealing? Yes, kind of -- unless we can do that willful suspension of disbelief thing and allow it to just be a mysterious plume of smoke.

And that's the problem with life, isn't it?  Things are never quite what they seem, and often the stuff that brings color and beauty into the world is the very stuff that pollutes it -- just as the things which cause trouble in our lives are the very things that help us grow into exciting and rewarding new spaces.

As a friend reminded me in a note just this morning, not one of us is truly bad or truly good; not one of us is wholly innocent or wholly defiled.  The liberals can not denigrate the Tea Party for attacking and disrespecting Obama without also accepting blame for having attacked and disrespected Bush.  Each of us is liable and accountable for our own biases and imperfections; let she who is without sin cast the first stone.

Which doesn't necessarily make it okay to sit idly by when you see someone -- anyone -- attacking or disrespecting another human, another faith, another way of life.  It's good to speak up.  The question is -- can you do it without judgment, without self-righteousness?  Can you speak out of love without sounding holier-than-thou? Can it be a reasoned -- if impassioned -- discourse, or must any such confrontation degenerate into a ruthless severing of relationship?  How do we protect our boundaries and champion our beliefs and yet remain open and accommodating?  How do we declare that something is not-okay and not-me and still retain a sense of oneness with the universe?

It's a conundrum, to be sure.  And yet... those sticky places of our lives -- however frustrating or irritating, or just plain stinky they may prove to be -- so often contain extraordinary gifts...

(PS: With thanks to Maureen of Writing Without Paper: to  see more images of the beauty in pollution, click here and visit the work of J. Henry Fair.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Step 1 of Interspiritual Meditation: Motivation

Yesterday's birdsong left me with a bit of wanderlust, so I took myself off on a photography day (yay!  I'll have some new images to share with you!).  This handsome fellow was watching from the top of a telephone pole as I drove out; an auspicious beginning to what turned out to be a lovely day.

So why is he here, on this page, now?  I think because he's a good symbol for the importance of discipline.  And if the topic of my reading today in  Interspiritual Meditation is Motivation, then I really have to think about meditation as a discipline. 

Which is a bit odd -- because I've been meditating for so many years now I've almost forgotten that it's a kind of discipline, and that it therefore requires some sort of motivation to keep you going.  It's been so long since I had to think about that... So what IS my motivation for meditation?  What is it that keeps me going, morning after morning?

I suspect that the first answer at this point in my life is Habit: I've been doing this for so long it feels like something's missing when I skip it.  But for someone who's just beginning that answer isn't going to work.  So let's see if I can come up with a list of the reasons that propelled me into this habit.

1.  A longing for centeredness

Life had been pretty bumpy and I'd been feeling frazzled for quite a while when I discovered Centering Prayer.  I had, over the years since my 20's, tried several different kinds of meditation, but none of them had ever really stuck.  Centering Prayer seemed like a good thing to try, because I wanted to feel -- well, more centered.  I wanted to believe I was operating out of a core sense of self, but wasn't even sure what that was any more.  Centering Prayer, for whatever reason, seemed to work for me: which must mean I HAD a center...

2.  A longing for connection

We had just moved again -- our fourth move in five years -- and though I'd made friends along the way I was feeling disconnected, from friends, from community, from my self, my body, my husband and from God.  I hoped Centering Prayer would somehow help me rebuild those connections.

3.  A longing for health

I'd just come off a five year battle with a variety of immune deficiency symptoms, triggered by an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs and an overdose of cortisone, and I was weak; felt at the mercy of my body and its whims.  I'd read enough about the effects of meditation to hope it would help restore my equilibrium.

4.  A longing for peace

I knew enough about Buddhist theology and the workings of my own brain to understand that a lot of the suffering I was feeling was something I was creating for myself.  I felt I needed a break from my mind's constant struggling, scenario-creating, rehearsing, remembering, and projecting.  It was all creating this pervasive sense of anxiety that seemed way out of proportion to my circumstances, and I just wanted to restore some sense of peace, if only for a few minutes a day.

5.  A need for success

I still hadn't recovered from the loss of my "important" job; still hadn't quite figured out where my self-esteem could come from now that I had nothing concrete I could point to, wasn't earning any money, wasn't (at that point in my life, anyway) particularly successful as either wife or mother.  I needed to set a goal for myself and stick to it, if only to prove I could.

6.  A longing just to be a better person

I just didn't like myself very much: I was relentlessly self-absorbed, whiny and irritable; I was not particularly generous or compassionate, quick to anger and slow to forgive.  I (perhaps foolishly!) thought meditation might make a dent in some of that.

Okay.  So it took a couple of years before it became a daily habit -- I'd go off to a Centering Prayer retreat, and come home all fired up, be steady at the practice for several months, and then just... lose it.  It was only after my third retreat that I was finally able to make the practice stick, which means I've now been at this for seven years -- not all that long, when you think about it.  Not long enough for someone like me (I'm a bit of a control freak) to have had much in the way of mystical experiences (though I did have one moment early on when a sort of female divine presence appeared and helped me feel, briefly, total acceptance.  That was pretty amazing.)

But yes: I feel lots more centered, though I know from experience that disappears pretty quickly if I miss a day.  I definitely feel more connected: it only takes a breath now to stop and feel the presence of the Divine, inside and out, though that breath has to be conscious.  I don't know how much more connected I am into community, but certainly I'm better connected with myself, my husband, my body, my kids -- and my friend connections tend to run pretty deep.

I'm probably healthier than I've ever been, but that could be due to the passage of time, lost weight, better eating habits, and better exercise habits.  On the other hand -- I was able to do those things precisely because meditating taught me I do actually have a capacity for self-discipline.  So in that sense I guess I got a sense of success which enabled me to be successful in other areas.

Peace?  Well, peace is still a bit intermittent.  But it's there, always there: again, I just have to be conscious about it.  I still struggle with fear and anxiety, out of proportion to the events that trigger those feelings -- I suspect, to some extent, that it's genetic, though it might also be a side-effect of aging.  But if I make the conscious effort I can pretty much calm myself down most of the time. 

Am I a better person?  I think so... I'm still far from perfect, but I'm a little wiser, a little more thoughtful, a little more generous, a little more compassionate... And some of where that comes from is self-respect.  Meditation -- and the conviction that it was good for me -- has taught me to declare limits, boundaries, to say no, to claim my rights, if only to that one uninterrupted 20-minute period of the day.  And, having learned to say/do that in one place, well -- the lesson carries over into other parts of my life.  Which is a good thing -- because if I have learned to take care of my own needs, then I don't expect others to take care of them for me: which frees me to be less self-absorbed and demanding and more caring and compassionate.

And perhaps most importantly -- though I didn't understand this when I began -- watching the workings of my own mind, getting to know the ugly parts and the anxious parts and the shadow bits (all of which are pretty hard to avoid when you pay such close attention on a daily basis) and then feeling the divine love in spite of all that has taught me to be more loving and compassionate with my own foibles -- which, in turn, makes me far more loving and compassionate about the foibles of others.  There's pretty much nothing that others do that's wrong or irritating or stupid or just plain evil that I haven't already encountered in myself.  And I can no longer really justify self-righteousness (which doesn't mean I don't still feel it from time to time; I just know the symptoms and understand it's mostly projection).  So I'm considerably more sympathetic with other people's "stuff."  Still not all that tolerant at times, but at least more understanding.  Again -- it's mostly a matter of being conscious.

So.  There you have it.  The pleasures and perils of meditation; motivation and results -- at least for the short term.  Am I hooked?  Yeah, I guess you could say that.  Has it been worth the effort?  Yes.  Would I recommend it to others?  (This is starting to sound like a Zappos questionnaire) Yes.  Go for it.  It just -- helps get you unstuck.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Inside the birdsong


I just love Sunday mornings.

No one has anything they need to get up for.  Which means I actually get that first hour or two completely to myself -- is that selfish of me?  I drank my coffee, read my book, lit my candles, sat in my chair, and meditated for an extra 20 minutes, just sitting, allowing the sweet bird outside my dining room window to sing me into the morning.... Pure heaven.

And though the day is actually dark and rainy, inside the birdsong it felt like spring, green and alive with potential and wonder.  And so I sat, wrapped in my blanket and wonder, and listened; allowing the hope to blossom in my chest.

This, I think, is what church should feel like. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

More than you ever wanted to know about the working of a contemplative photographer's brain

Because I'm supposed to be preparing for the talk I'm to give at Seattle U in February,   I'm a little more conscious than usual about what goes into this daily practice of mine -- which (of course) means that it's not flowing quite as smoothly as it normally does.

Some of that has to do with time constraints -- interruptions, changes in plans, people getting up and coming downstairs unexpectedly when they normally sleep in -- but some of it is also just the experience of being observed by my own analytical brain.

So you may remember that yesterday I had intended to share Ed Bastian's definition of contemplation, when I got sidetracked.  So today I knew I wanted to come back to that, and so first I looked at it again, to see what it was that struck me.

"Contemplation," he says, in his new book,  Interspiritual Meditation, "is not an aimless meandering of thought, but a disciplined activity by which one explores and investigates an idea, an insight, a sacred persona, or a truth, in a thoroughgoing way, pursuing its consequences for all aspects of our lives."

This definition struck me particularly because I'd been preparing for this talk, and it seemed to me that in all my preparation I'd actually neglected to say anything about what I think it means to be a contemplative photographer, which is... um... kind of the basic concept that frames everything I do?  Well, duh! 

But then, of course, I thought -- well, this is a pretty dry description, and if I begin with that the whole talk is going to be a bit of a snore.  So then I thought, well, maybe if I just talk about it in the blog I'll be able to get it out of my system, or clarify it.  Which meant I should begin by finding some sort of image that reflects or illuminates the subject.  Which meant I went browsing through my image collection -- and half an hour later I still had... well, nothing.

Because that's not really how it works, most of the time at least.  The image really has to come first.  So then I gave up and let myself just hunt for an image that called to me, and then I would just work with it.  And wouldn't you know something like this rusty thing at the top of the blog would appear.  I mean, hello: what am I supposed to say about this?  There's beauty in disintegration?  Getting rusty isn't necessarily a bad thing?  And what does that have to do with contemplation? Because these thoughts are just coming off the top of my head; it's not like they're deep or anything.

And now the blogging process  -- already thrown off this morning by my husband needing to cook in the kitchen while I was meditating -- has been interrupted by 3 separate phone calls and I'm basically thinking I should stop trying to write, just quit while I'm ahead and let YOU figure out what that image could POSSIBLY have to do with contemplation.

But then some part of me -- you know, the brain that thinks I might have something important to say if I could just slow down for a minute and LOOK at the damn thing -- thinks there must be SOMETHING I could say, so I go back into Photoshop to look at the image again and realize, no, actually, that wasn't the image that really called to me today; it was THIS one -- which I rejected, because it was sort of obvious; so much so that I suspect I may have already used it?

But now, whatever the initial message it may have wanted me to explore might have been, it seems clear that the time has come to just STOP.  STOP WRITING.  STOP THINKING.  STOP WORRYING ABOUT IT -- and stop isolating yourself from the rest of the family, which has now gathered in the dining room for breakfast.

So I will.

So there.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Blessing the ties

I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, and one of the songs we used to sing regularly -- though I no longer remember what specific ritual it was tied to -- was "Blest be the Tie that Binds."

"Blest be the tie that binds
our hearts in Christian love.
The fellowship of kindred minds
is like to that above."

When I was wandering through my images this morning and came upon this one, that was the song that began playing in my head.  So even though I had planned to share with you Ed Bastian's definition of contemplation in his new book, Interspiritual Meditation (I guess that will just have to wait until tomorrow ) I see that there's something more important that takes precedence.

And that is, I think, the reason I picked up Ed's book in the first place -- which I did partly because I believe in his basic premise, which is that there is "a shared mystic heart beating in the center of the world's deepest spiritual traditions," and partly because I really value the power of shared meditation practices.  Even though we may be taking very different approaches to meditation, there is no denying the power of sitting in meditation with others who are also meditating -- whatever forms the various meditations may take.

I was speaking with someone recently about how much I miss attending church -- and specifically how much I miss Communion, which, for me as a Christian, has always been a very powerful experience.  What compensates me -- at least somewhat -- for that loss is my now bi-weekly opportunity to meditate in the presence of others who are also meditating.  The feeling of presence in that shared space is very moving, and the sense of being tied -- in however mysterious a fashion -- to those other lives for that brief time is really precious to me; it keeps me from getting too caught up in my own "stuff;" keeps me connected to the world around me.

Because it seems to me that meditation is really all about strengthening those connections: connections to the Divine, within and without, and connections to the Other, the rest of creation, and all that is divine within that.  And if meditation is a way of creating and nurturing that sense of being tied -- to reality, to others, to earth, to humanity, to all of creation, and to God -- well, what could say it better?  Blest be the tie that binds.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Love all that you can love

A friend invited me to join her for a meditation session at a nearby Dojo this morning, and so I went and sat with her and three other meditators in that quiet scented space.

And when my mind wasn't occupied with memories of a recent phone conversation or visions of boots (I am still trying to replace the pair that wore out this winter), I kept seeing a pond with water lilies.

So I share that vision -- the water lilies, not the boots and the meetings, though each has its own value -- here with you now, in lieu of anything more profound that I might have to say, and offer up an excerpt from one of the poems in Daniel Ladinsky's wonderful book, Love Poems from God.  This one was written by St. Teresa of Avila; the poem is called "I Loved What I Could Love,"  and here are the lines I wanted to share:

Have you ever walked across a stream
stepping on rocks so not to spoil a pair of shoes?

All we can touch, swallow, or say
aids in our crossing to God
and helps unveil the soul.

Life smooths us, rounds, perfects, as does the river the stone,
and there is no place our Beloved is not flowing
though the current's force
you may not always like.

Our passions help to lift us.

I loved what I could love until I held Him,
for then--all things -- every world

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

While you were sleeping

When I awoke this morning the living room was filled with moonlight -- amazing!  It's rare for us to see the moon this time of year, as the cloud cover is usually pretty thick.

I went outside with my camera, and sat and watched as the moon sank slowly  behind the mountains; it was a beautiful way to start what is always the busiest day of my week.

I'm not sure I'll have time today to write any more than this, but I thought I would at least share my mountain moon with you -- even though I know that you, too, may have had a chance to see the full moon this morning...

Oh, good -- there's just time to add a poem from Meister Eckhart:

The Hope of Loving

What keeps us alive, what allows us to endure?
I think it is the hope of loving,
or being loved.

I heard a fable once about the sun 
going on a journey to find its source,
and how the moon wept
without her lover's warm gaze.

We weep when light does not reach our hearts.
We wither like fields
if someone close
does not rain
their kindness
upon us.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Protect and project

You may have noticed an underlying theme to the blog lately.  It has to do with the issue of judgments -- the ways in which we judge ourselves and others -- and stems largely from the fact that this year's book for my weekly study group is Byron Brown's Soul Without Shame: A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within.

My relentless coughing is keeping me from attending class this morning, but the subject is nonetheless on my mind, particularly after reading these lines today:  "All judgments are based on and fueled by personal feelings.  Focus on communicating the feelings and you will bypass the need for judgment."

So it's probably not surprising that this image leaped out at me today; it's from a collection of photos I took of graffiti in  Portland last weekend, and for some reason it speaks to me about the natural human tendency to place blame.

What I see here is a certain amount of chaos, over which this little bandit/artist has laid his own distinctive scrawl.  But at the same time he's drawn a halo over himself, as if to say the chaos is not his fault.  For some reason this immediately pulls me back into childhood, and the way chaos can erupt in a classroom when the teacher has to step out of the room.  Each child, seeing the wildness, contributes her own streak, and yet each child proclaims innocence when the teacher returns and seeks a culprit.

We are, from an early age, somehow conditioned to place blame elsewhere and portray ourselves as blameless -- particularly when there are siblings involved -- so how on earth can we expect to outgrow that habit as adults?  And what possible incentives are there for setting aside that tendency to protect and project?

It seems to me that if we are to seriously work for change in the world, in our political system, in our communities and in our families, this may be where we have to begin: to unlearn this innate impulse to portray ourselves as angels and "other" -- however we define that -- as villain.

But first, of course, we have to become conscious of our tendency to do that... and it seems to me that's a life's work all by itself.                                                                                    

Monday, January 17, 2011

Things are not what they seem

I caught my husband's cold this week. I could feel it building in the early part of the week, and it finally erupted full force on Friday, so I spent the weekend mostly sleeping and coughing.

Which means I spent the weekend watching how difficult it is for me not to "do stuff."  This is actually not a bad time for me to get sick; there's nothing too demanding on my plate, no exhibits to prepare for, a bare minimum of schoolwork, lots of dry reading (that puts me to sleep)...

But still, something in me keeps feeling I should DO something.  And another voice somewhere inside worries that by taking drugs I only prolong the cold.  So I try to spend part of each day without drugs, and then the cough takes over and it seems to take forever to get it back under control.  In the end, what happens is that any illusions I might have had about being an essentially rational person are pretty much shattered by illness...  Clearly I am at the mercy of any number of unconscious drivers from my childhood!

So why this picture?  This is a completely unaltered photo, taken through the car window on the way back from Portland last weekend.  I suspect I shot it because the sky was manifesting some lovely colors, but somehow this was all the camera registered.  And at first glance, in my current Nyquil-induced haze, it had a definite urban/apocalyptic feel.  But actually, upon closer examination, I remember where it was taken, and we were definitely driving along a very rural stretch of highway.  There are no smokestacks here, only trees and telephone poles; no smoke but simply clouds; no fire, but simply the dying rays of the sun.

So I'm thinking this is yet another example of the many ways in which our vision is colored by our own experiences, and by our states of mind.  What looks like the end of the world -- when our gaze is filtered through hormones or recent experiences or drugs or preconceived notions -- may actually be the dawn of some new day; not an extraordinary calamity but simply a natural progression of events.

So the next time you go off on a tear of righteous indignation, I invite you to stop a second before you speak or write your vitriolic rebuttal, and just ask yourself: What is it about this situation that triggers me?  What am I not seeing? and then take another 24 hours to evaluate how best to serve the world with your response...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Levels of unconscious perception

This morning, in John Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening, I am reading a rather complex explanation of conscious and unconscious perceptions.  He's talking about figure -- whatever is in the foreground of your awareness -- and ground -- that which lies in the background of your awareness; the unconscious.

He then goes on to say that "the unconscious ground can be differentiated into four levels: the situational ground of felt meaning -- our implicit felt sense of the immediate situation we are in; the personal ground -- how patterns of past experience and accumulated meaning implicitly shape our present consciousness, behavior, and worldview; the transpersonal ground -- the ways in which the body-mind organism is attuned to larger, universal qualities of existence; and the open ground -- pure, immediate presence to reality prior to identification with the body-mind organism."

So when I went wandering through my images this morning I stopped at this one, because it gives at least a tentative example that helps clarify some of that -- for me, at least.  The figure in the foreground is clearly intended to be an angel.  That, I think is the situational ground. But included in my past experience are images of childhood villains like the infamous Snidely Whiplash, who hover over their victims and rub their hands together in a nasty unconscious mockery of praying hands. 

Which means that even though this is clearly supposed to be an angel, something about her facial expression, because it is less than beatific, invites me to superimpose a sinister quality over her that others might not perceive.  That, I think, is the personal ground -- and it begins to question: why would someone buy this angel, or be attracted to it?  What does it say about them?  -- all of which is projected out of my own experiences watching the evil of Snidely Whiplash.  The owner of the angel may have no experience of that, and see only beauty and purity, while my mind busily attempts to color my picture of the purchaser with the subtle and inadvertent suspicions about the object.

I confess I'm not quite certain what transpersonal ground would be in this instance, but I believe the open ground is that presence within me -- which I can sometimes tap into through meditation -- that accepts and appreciates without labeling or judging.  And it is that open ground which I long to keep in awareness -- the appreciative, compassionate, non-judgmental non-fearful acceptance of what exists in any given moment.

It is from that open space that I can begin to perceive both the angel and her owner without the overlay of my childhood experiences and prejudices. 

Why go into all this?  I think it just helps me understand how much my experiences color my perceptions and then propel me into judgment.  Now if I could just get better at assessing which judgments are useful and which judgments are not...

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Beyond our comfort zones

When money is tight, we tend to become very aware of how others make and spend money.  Take this phone, for example, which sat on a mahogany table across from the 6th floor elevator at our hotel last weekend.

What, you have to wonder, would ever make a person think, "Gee, I bet if I made a crystal phone, I bet people would buy it!"  I just can't imagine thinking that -- or, less still, buying one.  But then, I don't live in a world populated and decorated with mahogany, crystal and mirrors.

Would I buy a phone made of iridescent raku pottery, or wood?  I might -- or I'd at least be more likely to buy that than crystal.  Which is yet another example of the way what we see is colored by what we know.

Which means, I think, that if we are ever to understand other people's thoughts and decisions, we have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones; to explore unfamiliar territory, and expose ourselves  to other ways of seeing, being, and believing.  And, in the process, we probably need to leave our judging voice behind -- you know, the one that says, "OMG, that's so tacky!" or "What was she THINKING?" or even "You have GOT to be KIDDING me."

Somehow we have to learn to trust that others who make decisions different from our own are not stupid or misinformed; that they may be operating out of a different awareness, different knowledge, a different set of parameters...  And if the resulting decisions actually offend you -- well, you might need to ask what's really going on inside you; who is it in you that's offended; why is your reaction so intense, and what does it say about what's going on elsewhere in your life.

Having said all that -- well, I still wouldn't buy this crystal phone: it just wouldn't fit in my house.  But I had fun photographing it, and it actually added a lot of charm to that table in the hotel.  I have to admire the people who decided to create it and knew where to market it (though I have no clue what they must have had to charge for it).  And I love that it actually works: How cool is that!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Of balance and boundaries

When I saw this Buddha, sitting at the foot of the steps in The Dapper Frog, I couldn't not go down the stairs to visit; couldn't not take a picture.

... and isn't that an interesting phrase -- "couldn't not"?  It's the equivalent of "just had to," but somehow captures more of the resistance, the approach/avoidance I was feeling.

Which is also, I see, reflected in the sculpture's hand positions.  The left hand is gently cradling -- could be an invitation, a gesture of pride, pointing to something nearby, could be simply indicating that he is holding a space for me, or for something in himself.

But the right hand clearly says" Stop; come no closer" and even goes on to imply "I am too busy for your petty concerns at this time."  There is a clear separation: this is not a greeting, the thumb is not crooked in the classic hand symbol; this just feels like a "no"  -- and is further emphasized by his slight frown.  It feels a bit (and surely I'm projecting here) like "Don't bug me, I'm meditating!"

And somehow what I see in that is a sense of balance; a knowingness, of what is acceptable and what is not, of what is welcome and what is not, of what is growth-producing and what is not.  I think what I'm seeing is a visual representation of the importance of boundaries -- something I've been struggling a bit with lately -- and I'm finding that clarity very appealing.

Yes, we are one with the universe; brothers and sisters to all of creation.  But that doesn't mean we always need to be open to the demands of those around us.  We need to strike a balance; to find time for ourselves and occasionally declare ourselves off limits if we are to stay centered and sane.  And in finding, making space for, and achieving that balance we can begin again to feel the light of love that bathes us all.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stop, look, and write

Though I can't remember a time when I didn't enjoy writing, I do remember that at some point in my youth -- 6th grade? -- we had, as our textbook, a delicious book called Stop, Look and Write!

I haven't seen the book in years, but what I remember about it was that there were photos, and we were invited to make up stories about what was going on in the pictures.  And what I remember more is how much I looked forward to those exercises: small wonder, now, that I enjoy pairing images and languages here in this space, with that hiding in my background.

It's a bit like our family excursions to Frisch's Big Boy, those rare occasions when we went out to dinner together; occasions so tinged with joy that for years I was addicted to MacDonalds: the tasty echoes fed my hunger for connection.

So when I saw this boarded-up window, I couldn't not stop to photograph it; couldn't not think about that book that meant so much so long ago.  And what clearer indicator could we have, that everything we see is colored by the past?  Because when I look at this, the white letters on the black, my mind immediately fills in the blanks, makes the word clear, filling in the black background and adding the image of a stoplight, as from the cover of that book -- in much the same way that, in the faces of my children now I see the babes that they once were, and in the body of my husband now I see the slim man he once was.

Nothing, I think, is quite what it appears; everything we hear or touch or taste carries within it the echoes of a sometimes unremembered past.  And, knowing that, why are we so quick to judge?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

At the mall of discovery

I grew up with a father who collected a variety of puns called "Answer Jokes" which he culled from Carmac the Magnificent on the Johnny Carson show.

So the first time I heard Billy Collins read this poem (at one of his appearances at our local high school), I fell instantly in love with it, because it really is a perfect, poetic, answer joke:

Not only in church
and nightly by their bedsides
do young girls pray these days.

Wherever they go,
prayer is woven into their talk
like a bright thread of awe.

Even at the pedestrian mall
outbursts of praise
spring unbidden from their glossy lips.

The title, of course, is "Oh, My God!"

... which I mention this morning only because (since I have daughters) that was the phrase that leaped unbidden into my head when I was reading John Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening this morning.  Oh. My. God!  I finally get it!

The gift -- which seems ridiculously simple, but for me was like a puzzle piece falling into place -- was just this: He's talking about the difference between the Western concept of ego -- as something that needs to be strengthened -- and the Eastern concept of ego -- as something that needs to be overcome -- a difference I'd never really worried about, to be honest -- and he says these magical words:

"The ego is a transitional mental structure that serves a useful purpose in human development; an interim caretaker, a managerial function created by the mind for the purpose of navigating the world.  Initially this allows children to survive, function, and develop during their early years when they cannot yet fully recognize or draw on the power of their larger being...The tragedy of the ego, however, is that we start to believe that this manager, this frontal self that interfaces with the world, is who we are.

...There is a certain poignancy to this.  As an imitation of our true nature, ego is a way of trying to be.  If we lack the true strength to deal with difficult circumstances, we try to be strong -- by tensing and tightening.  Lacking true confidence, we try to get ahead or be on top -- by forcing and pushing.  Lacking direct knowledge of our value, we try to be lovable -- by compromising ourselves, trying to save our parents, or pleasing people."

"Criticizing the ego," he goes on to say, "is like condemning a child for not being an adult... Instead of indulging in ego-bashing, a more helpful approach is to appreciate how ego tries its best; to have some compassion for its ultimate failure."

Wow.  I'm not quite sure how I managed to miss this basic concept, but OMG it clarifies SO MUCH for me -- and finally frees me, not only to recognize the ego at work, but also to be much more sympathetic to its efforts on my behalf.  Somehow, now, I can more easily recognize it -- and see beyond it to the strength, the confidence, and the lovableness of the larger, more connected being that lies beneath.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Just do it!

This odd phrase came to me in the middle of a strangely dream-ridden meditation this morning: it was (instead of Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!) "Gentlemen: Start Your Demons!"

I think it was somehow connected to what I've been reading, both in Toward a Psychology of Awakening and in Soul Without Shame (which I'm reading in my book group). Both books address the subject of facing your demons and reaping the energy they have to offer. 

But for whatever reason (and there are plenty of possible reasons at the moment) the clarity I usually feel around such issues is living behind a sort of haze, like this beautiful old window, whose lovely glow is subdued by the screen that stands in front of it.  If I do have engines that could be fueled by my demons, well... they're kind of clogged at the moment.

Listening to people talk in my book group this morning, I could remember what it feels like to have purpose and will.  But I couldn't seem to access that; couldn't seem to get past all the startling events and conversations of the weekend into a space where I could process them.  So I just sat, admiring all the good work everyone is doing, noticing where I felt connected to what they were saying, wishing I could climb out of whatever hole I was in.

-- and it's all good.  I'm not depressed or anything; just feeling overwhelmed and a bit hazy.  So I'm giving myself permission, patting myself on the back for finishing the project I needed to finish this afternoon, and then I think -- even though I have to prepare for a presentation tomorrow -- I think I'll just go sit.  Relax.  Chill out.

Sometimes we just need to give ourselves permission to go off-line.  Take a deep breath.  Vedge out.

Just do it!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The curse of separateness

I've always been fascinated by masks and faces, so I got very excited when I saw this amazing display at The Dapper Frog gallery in Portland's Pearl District.

Fortunately the pieces were out of my current price range, so I could just enjoy them instead of coveting them.  But I kept looking at them, waiting for one of them to call to me, and it didn't happen -- which was good, I think.

But ruminating on it later, upon awakening in my hotel in the middle of the night, I got to thinking: Why didn't any of the faces call to me?  What was I looking for?  And the possibility occurred to me (now, I'm not saying this is true: it is a middle-of-the-night thought, after all) that perhaps I was looking for approval; a face I could put somewhere near my desk that, when I looked at it, would remind me that I am loved/okay/good/a child of God/special; that something somewhere delights in me.

Which is odd, because I know all that is true; why would I be seeking a reminder? I suspect, for now, that it's yet another odd manifestation of this sense of loss we are experiencing as we walk through the grieving process for the friend whose memorial service we attended over the weekend.  And it seems -- I see now -- intriguingly appropriate that we spent much of yesterday with his family, going through all his photos and labeling those faces we knew and remembered from his past. 

We had a surprisingly lovely time doing that -- it was a delightful reminder of the many people we have known and loved and been loved by over the years -- and now I'm thinking it might not be a bad idea to do that with our own boxes of photographs from the past.

We humans have such a huge appetite for connection, and yet we do so much to separate ourselves from one another over the course of a lifetime.  Which makes me think of a David Bohm quote I heard in class on Friday: "The universe produces separations, not separateness."

Separateness, I suspect, is a curse we create for ourselves.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Poison as fuel

I’m not very far into the Welwood book, but twice now a phrase has leaped off the page and grabbed me, so I’m trying to pay attention. The first was this: “The key lies in regarding our personality structure, not as a problem or an enemy – something to fix, condemn, or eradicate – but rather as a stage of development that provides a stepping stone for further evolution.”

And the second was this “By learning to open to the poisons of the mind… we can unlock the vital energy contained in the poisons – energy that can help us maintain our connection with the earth, our passion, and everyday life.”

I’ve understood for a while now that when I encounter the darker aspects of my soul, I need to lean into them, not run away; to learn to love them rather than judging them – that in learning compassion for my own foibles I will become a more compassionate person overall.

But I’m not sure I understood – or perhaps I had forgotten – that those internal poisons can actually serve as fuel; can provide energy and passion for the journey, wherever it may lead. And as I think about this now, I realize this thought was beginning to surface last night.

As I stood at the gathering held at their home after the memorial service, observing Lou’s family and surroundings, I could see that he and his wife had created a loving environment where there was little pressure to conform but rather a genuine appreciation of individual strengths and differences. And as I thought about that I realized that despite our efforts to the contrary, in comparison both my husband and I are still relatively plagued by shoulds around appearances and conformity.

I’ve always admired my daughters and their friends (like the friend shown here, who chose this wonderful image for her senior portrait) for their willingness to be themselves; I like to think that openness is made possible to some extent by the unconditional love and acceptance we did our best to offer as they were growing up. But of course part of my admiration stems from my own reluctance or inability to be fully myself in ways that might invoke parental disapproval (despite the fact that my parents are long gone).

So to read now that personal issues around self-acceptance and self-worth could serve as fuel for change rather than as a constant insurmountable obstacle – could even be already serving as a fuel for creativity and gifts (and as I look at it more closely, I can see that’s actually true) – well, it gives me hope.

Hmm. Hope. Didn’t we hear that word yesterday as well? How encouraging! Stay tuned; perhaps there are more hopeful words and thoughts to come, and more energy to share…

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A luminous and compassionate presence

Sadly, I forgot to bring my cardreader with me to Portland, or I'd share images of the amazing lobby of our hotel: it's all mahogany, glass and mirrors; built around the turn of the last century and beautifully maintained.  A very nice change from last weekend's Motel 6, and only $20 more a night...

Sigh.  I wish, sometimes, that I didn't appreciate creature comforts quite so much.  But a warm hotel room, cotton sheets, a down comforter and a firm mattress are just so appreciated.

I am embarking on John Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening (kindly given to me as a present by a dear friend) and he does remind me that I am a creature of the body as well as the mind; perhaps I shouldn't be too hard on myself for that.

Anyway, I'm here in the lobby, sharing a table and coffee with my husband, who also woke early, and I just wanted to say that class yesterday was amazing.  Yes, the teacher was good, and the subject matter (metaphor) intrigues me. 

But the blessings of the day were all in the people interactions: I really enjoy my fellow students, and feel very much a part of the Antioch community.  There is so much joy and wisdom and earnest desire to serve, to help make the world a wiser, better place -- sitting in the classroom is almost akin to sitting on the beach: I just enjoy basking in the light.  I feel warmed and energized and, oddly enough, hopeful -- which makes me realize it's been a while since hope was a detectable emotion for me.

So I'm hoping you're finding yourself, as you face into the new year, with a renewed sense of hope and possibility.  And to feed that, maybe I'll do a little Tonglen this morning: breathing in the despair of the world, breathing out this sparkle of hope that's rising up.  We may be discouraged about the state of the world around us, but we can at least feel a sense of possibility  that emerges from our immediate surroundings -- whether camping in the snow, sitting in a lobby, shivering under a bridge, basking on a beach or simply typing at our computers.  There is an awareness, a potential there: can you feel it? 

Welwood says, "Recognizing the essential nature of our awareness as an open, wakeful, luminous, and compassionate presence allows us to relate to our life in a much richer and more powerful way."  Which resonates: I'm thinking it was that luminous and compassionate presence that began to reappear yesterday after a period of hibernation.  And I welcome that...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Balancing ecstasy and laundry

I finished the last chapter of After the Ecstasy, the Laundry this morning, and it had so many wonderful moments in it I just thought I'd share some of them with you.

"Our daily practices help us stay balanced, attend to our body, keep our heart open, strengthen our ability to offer clear love.  Our practice becomes like cleaning house.  We do not just clean the house once and forget it.  It is a regular task, and a pleasure to live in a clean house, to honor all who enter.  

But the house is not who we are, and no amount of ambitious cleaning will change the nature of our life.  We practice to express our awakening, not to attain it...we don't practice meditation or prayer to make some special reality.  Eating, walking, speaking, seeing, breathing, defecating -- each is amazing in itself.

This innocent heart, our Buddha Nature, the Child of the Spirit, the Holy One within is never degraded nor lost.  It is never born and never dies.  To see in this way is to see, as the Tao says, "with eyes unclouded by longing."  When we awaken this innocent heart, we find our true home.  At ease, we celebrate the simple marvels of every day...

This holy wisdom is whispered by the Tibetans in the ear of one who is dying.  "Remember the clear light, the pure clear light from which everything in the universe comes, to which everything returns, the original nature of your own mind.  It is your own true nature; it is home.

...When we embody this truth, our life becomes a blessing... we ourselves become the source.  Releasing ambition or fear, we return to our true home.  Without imitation, we become just who we are.  Our being is at ease; our heart opens.  Joy and freedom of spirit fill our days."

And then he closes with these words:  "In ending this book, I honor the wholeness that is your own true nature.  May your journey lead you home.  May you rest in grace, in natural compassion and a liberated heart.  Whether in times of joy or sorrow, in ecstasy or in the laundry, may you be happy.  May all who read the words of this book find freedom and joy.  May your love bring benefit to all beings."

And so another ending.  It's a day of beginnings and endings -- off to Seattle for the first class of the new term, and then down to Portland for a memorial service.  There's a certain amount of ecstasy felt, reading these wonderful words.  But a lot of laundry lies ahead; I'm hoping to find a healthy balance between the two -- and I wish the same for you.

Peace, my friends.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Healing the heart with music

Yesterday I spent some time meditating with two dear friends, and there was some sacred music playing in the background, something one of them had brought back from India. Though I don't normally meditate to music, I found it so soothing that I elected to put music on this morning while I did centering prayer.  And now I'm thinking I need to do more of that.

Music has such a gift for touching our hearts -- and awakening our memories.  It's so much a part of our lives that we take it for granted, I think, and forget the gifts it carries; the healing it can bring.

I'm in a better space today -- thanks to friends and music -- and so I just want to express my gratitude for that and invite you -- if you're feeling a little low -- to listen to something soft and gentle -- something peaceful -- and allow it to place a gentle hand on your chest and breathe some much needed love into your heart.

Here's a  sample of what I was listening to this morning; enjoy!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Gotta get it worked on

This is kind of what my brain's been looking like over the last few days -- lots of dark thoughts, kind of ominous and grasping, even though I can see there's blue sky somewhere beyond the parts that are immediately overwhelming. 

So I was looking forward to reading Kornfield's chapter on The Laughter of the Wise in  After the Ecstasy, the Laundry this morning: I really need to lighten up!

But of course you don't get to go to the lightened up place without first facing into the dark stuff.  So instead of being inspired to laugh, I got this passage:

"Underneath all the wanting and grasping, underneath the need to understand is what we have called "the body of fear."  At the root of suffering is a small heart, frightened to be here, afraid to trust the river of change, to let go in this changing world.  This small unopened heart grasps and needs and struggles to control what is unpredictable and unpossessable.  

But we can never know what will happen.  With wisdom we allow this not knowing to become a form of trust... St. John of the Cross described it this way: 'If a man wishes to be sure of the road he treads on, he must close his eyes and walk in the dark.'"

Darn.  No easy answers.  I just need to be open to what is, feel it, and feel my own responsibility for it.  Close my eyes and walk in the dark.  But it's good, I think, to be reminded that the blame for the struggles can't be tossed into someone else's court: it's really about me, my fear, my need to control. 


And of course (I have mentioned my brain's relentless capacity to provide lyrics for every occasion, right?) there's a song that springs into my head: it's Delbert McClinton's classic blues tune, Gotta Get it Worked On:

Like a macho man I tried to fix it myself
I can see already I'm gonna need some help
I gotta get it worked on Gotta get it worked on
I can tell I'm gonna need professional help

So I went to see a doctor he took one look
he just shook his head and closed his medical books
said I gotta get it worked on gotta get it worked on
It ain't gonna kill you you're not gonna die

Maybe I should go ahead and open up and just let it bleed
but if I let it turn to stone I'll never find the love I need

Ah well.  I do know the crankiness will pass; it always does.  I just have to stop running and face into it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Longing to get away

It's winter, and though my world doesn't quite look like this, we nonetheless have been dealing with frost and cold for a while now.  I've not been going on my daily walks for fear of slipping, and even taking the dog to the beach has become problematic: not only is the boardwalk slippery, but a pile of new wood has somehow planted itself where we step off onto the beach, and navigating our way through it has become a bit treacherous.

Even the cats are spending a lot more time indoors these days.  The frozen deck bothers their paws, I think; it looks like Alex spends most of his outside time sitting on the hot tub cover, dreaming of spring.

So how do we spend our days when our horizons become limited?  Do we complain about the cold, or begin planning a trip south?  Are we even aware of what the enforced indoor time does to our psyches?

I'm finding I spend more time just staring at my computer -- which, given that I'm not photographing all that much these days, is not particularly productive.  And this morning, faced with the blank page, I felt a bit frozen.  As time grew short (I have my book group on Tuesday mornings) I gave up and headed to the kitchen to get some toast -- though I suspect that's not what I was really hungry for.

Because I'd spent my meditation time remembering this place -- the retreat center where this photo was taken -- and was longing to be in that sort of space again.  It's funny: this happens every year, like clockwork: Christmas comes, the New Year begins, and suddenly I'm desperate for some time away, off and alone.  You'd think, after all these years, that I'd plan for it.  There's even an Episcopal Women's Getaway weekend, conveniently scheduled every year for Martin Luther King weekend; I should just always book it in advance.

But I didn't this year, in the interests of economy.  And now I'm thinking that may have been a mistake...

Monday, January 3, 2011

When being is enough

Before we left Portland yesterday we took some time and went to visit a dear old friend of mine from high school (thank you, Facebook!).

We had, as always, a wonderful time talking, and she graciously allowed me to wander through her home with my camera, photographing their many amazing works of art (they really should turn this home into a gallery; it's just delightful!)

There were many angels scattered about, partly in testament to the holiday season, but my memory is that there are almost always angels floating about her place.  This one, with its bemused expression, particularly struck me this morning.  And I think it's because the role of angel has been unexpectedly thrust upon her: she's really just a wooden doll, and someone has dressed her up with a wire robe, and wings, and a halo, and it's not all that clear she's ready for the role.

What I love about that is the humility of it.  I think we all -- even my husband -- get regarded as angels from time to time for doing things that just seem, well... right.  We just do whatever the situation requires, and then, sometimes, someone elevates that with some extraordinary appreciation. 

And now I wonder if we weren't all born to be angels; if maybe, just be being present and doing what seems called for in the moment, we are living into our angelic heritage.  I like to think we don't get all noble and beatific about it; that somehow the moments are thrust on us, and don't even fit all that well, and somehow good is done through us without our really being all that intentional about it.

Or maybe if we just keep the intention -- to aid mankind, to be compassionate, to be present -- kind of bubbling on the back burner, the way we always used to keep a bucket of water on the woodstove in the winter -- it might help someone, somewhere, breathe a little easier?

There is this temptation to feel we have to do something really significant to make the world a better place; something visible and noble.  But perhaps intention is enough, and our job is just to go about the business of living our lives: getting through the hard parts, sharing when we can, resting when we get the chance, loving even when it's difficult, and being present to whatever steps into the path.

At any rate, I'm thinking this may be the year to explore that possibility: to step back from doing into being, and see what emerges.  For those of us who are driven to succeed, that kind of stepping off the treadmill can take a lot of energy.  But I think it will be worth it. 

Because the truth is, this is what I love to do: blogging, writing, photography, meditating -- and maybe, for now, that's enough.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Rest in Peace

This seasonal decoration was on the mantle above the fireplace in the hospice where we spent most of yesterday afternoon and evening.  We were there to say farewell to an old college friend of my husband's, and spent our time mostly just hanging out with his wife and kids in the tiny room as they attempted to follow the nurse's instructions: "Just behave as you normally do."

His children are 13 and 15, so I found myself playing gin rummy and scrabble, eating pizza, and generally relaxing into our time together, despite increasingly hoarse breathing emanating from the bed that dominated the room.

By 11:30 or so it was clear we had run out of energy -- it's a long drive to Portland from Seattle, and the night before had not brought either of us much sleep -- and so, though the business of the evening was clearly drawing to a close, we elected to leave and check in to a nearby Motel Six.

One of the blessings of a long career in the Episcopal Church, with its Book of Common Prayer, is that over time some of the verses of the familiar services seem to plant themselves in your brain, to appear helpfully at opportune moments.  I had spent much of the 80's doing nightly compline services at the Episcopal Student Center in a New England college town, so as I moved toward the hospice door, wondering what I could possibly say that might ease the ordeal ahead, a familiar phrase from the Compline service filled my head, and so I shared it with my dear friend as she faced the final hours of her marriage: "May the Lord Almighty grant you a peaceful night and a perfect end.  Amen."

It felt right -- and somehow there was nothing left to say.  We hugged her and her two children, and drove away into the night -- and learned in the morning that he had died -- a very peaceful death -- less than an hour later.  And now, back home again after another tiring ride, I find myself thinking again of peace: Rest in peace, dear friend.

Rest in peace.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Doing and non-doing

This was the scene that greeted me this morning as I awakened into the new year.  And so I took my camera with me as I stepped out into the cold to walk the dog, to capture this moment of peace to share with you.  It was a time to be quiet, to observe, to be still and watch the movement of the birds and the rising of the light.

And, as usual, Jack Kornfield was right there with me in today's reading from  After the Ecstasy, the Laundry: here's what he had to say:

"In the natural world we find the teaching of doing and non-doing.  Trees bear fruit and fall dormant; otters, bears, and spotted trout sleep and wake; day alternates with night, and summer with winter.

Often we feel that we must be making a continual effort to enact our bodhisattva intentions, or else we are failures or lazy.  But the wider community of being tells us that without the winter-chill months of dormancy, there can be no apples.  Stillness, non-doing and listening are as important and essential as action in the mandala of awakened life.

Thomas Merton cautions us:
     'To allow oneself to be carried away 
     by a multitude of conflicting concerns, 
     to surrender to too many demands, 
     to commit to too many projects, 
     to want to help everyone in everything 
     is itself to succumb to the violence of our times.'

Sometimes it is necessary to march; sometimes it is necessary to sit, to pray.  Each in turn can bring the heart and the world back to balance.  For us to act wisely, our compassion must be balanced with equanimity, the ability to let things be as they are.  Just as our passionate heart can be touched by the sorrows of the world, so too we must remember that it is not our responsibility to fix all the brokenness of the world -- only to fix what we can."

It's so helpful for me to read this today, when I am struggling with the urge to fix so many things around me that seem to be broken.  But as I sit in prayer and try just to hold them all with grace, I see that my prayers are indeed being answered.  Not necessarily in the ways I had hoped or imagined.  But there are glimmers of light and hope as the new year begins, and for that I am sincerely grateful.

Happy New Year!