Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Just a little breathing room

As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I am exploring a slightly different approach to meditation: instead of releasing a thought as soon as I notice it, I am gently acknowledging it, asking if it has anything important to tell me, and then quietly drifting back to center.

It's a subtle difference, to be sure.  But in practicing it, I can see that I've been approaching meditation with the same sort of restless impatience I carry elsewhere in my life; can see that this tiny shift is an excellent way to practice slowing down, being attentive; getting in touch with whatever is longing to be born in me.

Paired with more attention to what my body is feeling and sensing, it's also helping me be more present to what I'm experiencing any given moment, instead of immediately turning moment into story.  As I look at this image in that context, the crow on the branch becomes a quietly observing presence; perhaps the birds in flight are the thoughts, either coming in or leaving -- or fluttering around, waiting to be noticed.

But what I like best about this picture, now that I look at how it's evolved, is that -- to me, at least -- there is a seated figure, a bit more golden in color, to the right of the tree, and the branch appears to be resting on its knee.  I really like the tenderness of that; that sense of connection to nature, and the way the tree has of being both inside and outside the frame.  It feels like a space is being created, a little breathing room -- which is pretty much all I ever really ask of a meditative practice: I was never really looking for Nirvana; just a little room to breathe...

Monday, May 30, 2011

Curious coincidences

I don't know about you, but I've always been fascinated and intrigued by coincidences.  So here's one for you: yesterday I was working on my images, and this one seemed to cry out for some flowers; the base looked like a rock garden to me.

So I pulled up a photo of a friend's garden on Orcas Island, a picture I took years ago when I lived on Orcas -- maybe in 1999?  And I smiled, applying the image over the base, thinking of that friend, whom I haven't seen for at least a year; maybe two.

And guess who called me yesterday afternoon?  Yep, it was that very friend -- she just happened to be thinking of me, and wanted to connect; invite me up for a visit; invite herself down for a visit... We had a lovely conversation, and will be seeing each other within a month, I'm sure.

And as I started writing this, I found myself thinking of a line from that old book which came out about 20 years ago -- The Celestine Prophecy -- something about there are no coincidences.  It's funny; I know that book was very New Age, but somehow it got passed around a bunch of us who were all starting up an Episcopal Church at the time, and for a while we were all really into it (and now, of course, I haven't thought of it in years.)

But I do love coincidences -- and there have been lots of them lately.  Is it a coincidence that, even as my blog readership is going down, I'm getting lots of notes and comments from new readers?  Is that to encourage me to stay with it?  Is it a coincidence that, just as I'm exploring new ways of presenting my art, new opportunities for display came across my desk yesterday? (Thank you, Joanie!)  Is it a coincidence that as school is drawing to a close people are starting to ask my professional advice about marketing and organizational behavior?

Maybe I'm just foolishly superstitious, but I prefer to see all these odd coincidences as gentle reminders that Someone Out There, or God, or The Universe -- however you want to describe that -- is keeping me company on this journey; that it's okay to stay on the path I'm on, even if I can't quite see where it's going; even if the earthly rewards for it seem pretty few and far between.  It's enough to just keep going, keep staying open; support is there, surfacing when I need it, even when I least expect it.

I know.  It's a sort of hopelessly romantic view of the world.  But it's also the piece that makes me more Christian than Buddhist, I think: there's still, even after all these years, a faith, a deep conviction, that ultimately things will somehow be okay; that "all things work together for good to those who love God" (Romans 8:28)

Crazy, eh?  And yet -- it doesn't seem to make me any less fearful.  Funny, isn't it, that we can carry fear and confidence in the same heart; what curious creatures humans are...

Sunday, May 29, 2011

On transforming the mind

Photography's a bit of a hard sell these days, now that digital cameras are so intelligent and so many people have access to them.  Not that I ever expected to make money at this, but these days it's particularly challenging to get back even a small portion of the investment in money and time.

Since framing finished work is a fixed cost, I'm always looking for alternative ways to display my work -- especially ones that move it out of the realm of standard photography.   So here's something I'm currently exploring: mounting my more abstract works on box frames and then further embellishing them.

This was the first of a set of three, and with each I was exploring different techniques, and -- again, do you get a theme here? -- trying to push through the blocks that prevent me from "messing with things"; trying new approaches, trying to honor whatever in me is attempting to express itself.

I picked up a copy of the Dalai Lama's book, Transforming the Mind, this morning, and reading what he has to say about meditation practice I realize my particular practice may be part of what's making it challenging to create new work.  Because the way my meditation currently works is that whenever I become aware of thoughts that are taking me away from my center, I make a conscious decision to release them; I push them away and stubbornly return to center.  Which, in essence, means I am rejecting them.

This approach has served me well over the last 10 years: it quiets and centers me, prepares me for the day, and has trained me to release the kinds of minor irritations that can arise during the day.  And I get that this is a form of discipline; that I do it because I want to still the active chatter on the surface levels of thinking; to tap into a deeper level of consciousness.

But isn't it possible that -- for the purposes of creativity -- the general theory of "if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him" (or the Centering Prayer equivalent, about releasing even the Virgin Mary if she appears to you) might be more likely to extinguish than to encourage the creative process?  What if I were to more gently acknowledge the presence of the thoughts that pass through?  Not necessarily to get caught up in them, but to explore them; invite them to share insights...

Surely this would be the advantage of mindfulness meditation over my current practice -- not that I want to go tripping off after all the old litanies or the petty concerns that have a way of arising, but to be attentive enough to discern the thoughts; to make conscious decisions to release or explore them as would seem appropriate.  Wouldn't this foster more attentiveness and creativity?  Mightn't it honor and cultivate inner wisdom?

At least it's worth a try...

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Spring cleaning

When this image evolved, a day or two ago, it seemed to want to be called "the Fairy Tale Trap."   And I can see where that comes from: the face in the mirror reminds me of the evil queen's mirror, reflecting back the fair Snow White; the stairwell has a suggestion of Rapunzel's tower, and the bars somehow suggest that young women can be trapped by fairy-tale expectations... what used to be called the Cinderella Complex.

According to Wikipedia, "This complex is named after the fairy tale character Cinderella. It is based on the idea of women that the story portrays, as being beautiful, graceful and polite but who cannot be strong independent characters themselves... and who must be rescued by an outside force, usually a man (i.e. the Prince)."

But you can tell from the open door and the dusting of leaves on the stairs that this particular tower has been unoccupied for quite some time now.  Oh, but wait -- didn't I just say in yesterday's post that I was full of dust and leaves?  Perhaps I'm still caught there; perhaps I never even noticed the door was open, I've grown so accustomed to the place -- rather like the fleas in the jar, who learn to jump just high enough not to hit the lid (so when you remove the lid they've forgotten how to escape?)

All of which reminds me of one of the meditations I did for The Contemplative Photographer's Alphabet, about Habitual Thinking:

Like a drafty well-used barn,
my brain is littered
with stale food for thought,
no longer nourishing.

I know there’s light and clarity,
somewhere up there,
but it won’t shine through
until I muck out the stalls,
chuck out the chaff;
brush out the bitterness,
sweep away that sense of betrayal.

I can’t really savor this fresh new fruit
til I air out the stench of all those might-have-beens.

Sounds like it may be time for a little internal spring cleaning... there must be something blowing around in there that needs to be swept out.  Now if only we could have a sunny warm day or two, perhaps I'd be more inspired to follow up on that!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Just tap into it!

As you can see, I couldn't stay away from these things; they're just too much fun!  But the break was good; I came back refreshed and ready to explore...

I think the reason these are so challenging for me (and I may have said this before) is that as I'm creating, I'm constantly asking myself "What do you want?"  And that kind of self-focus is, even after all these years, uncomfortable.  Growing up as an only child in the 50's, what I might want was pretty much irrelevant; it was all about what was right, or what should happen, or what my mother wanted. 

And of course, photography doesn't force much of that sort of engagement: if I'm doing any photoshopping afterwards, it tends to be more about what did I see that the camera didn't quite capture perfectly.  It's more about what is than about what could be.

So I find myself almost looking over my shoulder as I walk through these creations, asking "Is this okay?" as if there is some right or wrong way to do this.  But creativity at this level isn't about right or wrong, it's about expression; it's only wrong if it doesn't feel like it's speaking ME.

So I keep playing, going with what pleases me, and then I step back to find this incredibly lush image -- which is bizarre.  Because that doesn't feel like me right now.  I was just saying, earlier this week, that I feel sometimes, these days, as if I'm full of dust and dead leaves -- virtually the opposite of this image.  But the fact that I can create this means this lush richness is in there, too: I don't just crave the colors and juiciness of spring and summer during these relentless gray days: I can actually create it.

Which I find incredibly heartening -- and a sweet reminder that we already have everything we need; that everything we long for already exists; we only need to tap into it.  You may find this a stretch, but somehow what this tells me is that the Divine Source is always with us; it never dries up or dies -- we just have to trust it's there.

And now that I look at this, I see those two peonies in the middle have almost formed a mask; it's as if that richness at the center of being is looking back at me.  There's a piece of me that wants to make that mask look a bit friendlier, a bit less critical, but -- well -- that's what was there.  So I think I'll just let it be for now; just sit back and enjoy all these delicious colors -- just drink it up, like those ever-present cans of Nehi Grape Drink from my childhood.  Yum!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Hurdles to understanding and community

"The nature of experience and the process of sense-making can lead to a situation where everyone is having a different experience of the same event, and everyone is making up stories about each other's experiences, the stories get worse and worse, and, over time, a toxic environment of gossip and distrust settles in... 4 out of 5 conflicts between people at work are a result of this process: people have made up inaccurate stories to make sense of others' behaviors, and over time these stories have led to a total breakdown of collaboration."
-- Gervase Bushe, "Learning from Collective Experience," OD Practitioner (Vol. 41 No. 3, 2009)

Have you ever worked in a toxic environment?  Or been on a committee or volunteer organization where misunderstandings and miscommunications not only lead to hurt but get in the way of productive service?  Or gone to a school where competition is so fierce the students are at each other's throats and exclusive cliques squabble constantly?  It seems to me that people's different experiences of the same environment, and the stories they construct about others as they compete for limited resources, pose incredible hurdles to collaboration and community.

I'm reading this article as part of my coursework on "Intervening in a System," but I think these points have relevance far beyond the workplace.  And, fortunately, the article doesn't just name the problem (though I think that's the first step to healing -- to understand that the making up of stories to explain others' behaviors is often the root of conflict) but it offers a solution.  A complicated and awkward solution, I think -- at least initially -- but I can imagine it could work -- if everyone agreed to try it.

It involves communication, of course: a structure designed to facilitate speaking, hearing, and acknowledging people's personal experiences of situations.  Experience, says Bushe, "is composed of 4 elements: observations, thoughts, feelings, and wants.  Observations are what a video recorder would pick up.  Thoughts are all mental constructs.  Feelings are sensations and emotions.  Wants are motives, aspirations, objectives, and desires." Presumably if we can openly communicate what we are experiencing in these four arenas, it will help people understand the motivation behind our behaviors.

Not that all people are aware of their experiences at all of these levels, but "from the point of view of this model, the key to self-awareness for leadership and consulting effectiveness is the ability to become aware of your moment-to-moment experience...In order to learn from experience, people have to recognize that 'my truth' is not 'the truth.'"

Hmm.  So the solution, he says, lies in presence, self-awareness, understanding and communication.  The question is -- how do we get to that point?

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Moving on

I suspect some of you will breathe a sigh of relief when I say I've decided to stop publishing these constructed images for a while.

It's not that I won't still be working on them, or that I won't be sharing them from time to time.  But with all the possibilities that are opening up around them, they take longer to create.  I was only able to generate one yesterday, and when I emerged from my office late in the afternoon my body was definitely objecting to the time pressure -- and the image really didn't feel quite done.

It's good, I think, to listen to what our bodies tell us; good to notice when the balance is off, and good, also, to notice when the seasons change and the demands on our time begin to shift. 

And so I ask -- what's shifting in your life?  What wants to be born in you, and what needs to be weeded or pruned to give it space to grow?  Where has the balance shifted; where do you feel constricted -- and what would it take for you to breathe more comfortably?  Listen to what your body is telling you...

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Softening boundaries, broadening potential

Today's image is pure play; quite simply an adventure and an exploration of some new possibilities I discovered by accident earlier in the week.

Without going into serious Photoshop language, I'll just say this: I've discovered I can paint parts of images on top of other image without any cutting and pasting.   And, since I can control the thickness of the "paint," that means I can paint the mere suggestion of other images.  And, as  I do more and more of that, it becomes harder and harder to tell where one image stops and another begins.  And, of course, the color and image resources for any picture become virtually infinite.

It seems to me that this is not unlike what happens when we are in constant contact with other individuals: we rub off on one another, the boundaries become less distinct, what is me and not you becomes harder and harder to distinguish from what is you and not me.  And our potential for becoming whatever we might choose to become is in fact much richer than we may comprehend.

All of which feels connected, somehow, to our shared ground of spirituality.  It's a gift, I think, to see that our differences are not as huge or significant as we think they are; to see ourselves as... well... sheer, like curtains; as something one can see through to the ground underneath -- as if what society and upbringing and genetics paint on us is a thin veneer which, when stripped away, reveals the oneness of things.  Add to that our ability to choose what to paint, what to erase, and what to over-write... well, the possibilities begin to look almost infinite.

At some level, I suppose, that's a little scary -- and potentially a lot of responsibility.  But at another level it's exciting, encouraging -- even breathtaking.  And frankly, I can't wait to do some more exploring!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Inner geography

I'm not especially fond of the colors in this one, but because it looked to me like the parting of the Red Sea, they seemed to be appropriate choices.   But the people aren't Israelites, escaping, they're simply investigating -- which tied in nicely with today's reading from  The Promise of a New Day:

"Getting to know our inner geography, our own pattern of needs and fears, is never dangerous.  The danger lies in refusing to know.  We can't build solid self-confidence on ignorance and mistrust of ourselves; only by loving ourselves and acknowledging our kinship with needy, fearful humanity can we grow as individuals."

When we first begin to consider things like meditation, spiritual direction, and therapy, there is often this fear that some dreadful truth, something overwhelmingly scary or disgusting will be revealed.  And thinking about this, and about that image we all carry, of the Israelites standing at the edge of the Red Sea, and the waters parting to reveal a path to the other side, I see what a wonderful metaphor that can be for the process of self-exploration.

From the edge of the water, it looks terrifyingly deep; we wouldn't even dream of wading in if we weren't being pursued by our own demons.  But if we trust enough to embark, the waters will part; we'll have a chance to examine the ground beneath those overwhelming thoughts and feelings and responses, and, if we stay on the path, we will arrive safe and unharmed at some other, safer shore.  And -- the good news -- is we don't have to do it alone. 

... which brings me to another thing I wanted to say this morning: I am so grateful for all of you, my companions on the path.  Thank you for being willing to explore with me; I really do appreciate your company!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Still here

There were lots of conversations in our family yesterday about the rapture.  Mostly joking, of course -- exposing some amusing ideas of what heaven might be like -- but my younger daughter insisted on calling me at six and staying on the phone until she was certain I hadn't been carried away.

... which probably explains the origins of this image, which evolved yesterday afternoon with no great sense of gratification on my part.  I never set out to depict the rapture, and I certainly didn't intent to create a sort of "beam me up, Scottie, there's no intelligent life down here" image -- I didn't set out to depict the rapture at ALL -- but that's certainly what this looks like.

That's the problem, I suppose, with allowing creative energies to flow through us; we might not always like what emerges.  Sometimes, of course, there are moments of illumination, but there are also the times when all that happens is you get to see what's been on your mind -- and it may not be all that pretty.

But here's a question: what's so bad about that?  The answer, I think, comes from today's reading in The Promise of a New Day:  "We falter and fear our mistakes, certain that they will enlighten our fellow travelers about our inadequacies."  And don't you ever wonder -- what would be so awful about that?  What -- or who -- on earth ever insisted we had to be perfect, that every work of art had to be inspirational, that every poem had to have the flawless perfection of a gift from Mary Oliver?

I found myself, in an email to a friend yesterday, suggesting that my own temptation -- when things aren't going well, either in an organization, as an artist, or in a relationship -- is to walk away or shut down.  And certainly to stay with something that isn't working can, at times, prove foolish.  But it's equally misleading, I think, to assume or require that things will always go well, or as we wish; life doesn't seem to work that way. 

What I think I'm learning, over time, is that it may be true that walking away will be the ultimate response.  But it's in the act of staying with what is -- however difficult that may prove -- that the most learning happens.  And when and if the time does come to go, the clarity you get from all the time you spent trying to make it work can actually make that ultimate separation almost easy.  If you can say "I gave it everything I had to give," then you won't be wracked with guilt or loss in later years, wondering what you might have done differently -- or trying to re-create what you once had that's now, well... gone.

... and if those observations spring, at least in part, from time spent yesterday evening watching old episodes of Ally MacBeal and Friends, in which old relationships -- abruptly ended -- keep re-surfacing and causing problems, well -- there you have it: a secret vice revealed!  I walked away from my TV set somewhere early in the 90's, and now  -- thanks to Netflix -- I get to see what I missed.

Hmm.  Does this count as a guilty pleasure?  Or does it just say that if you fill your brain with sludge, it shouldn't surprise you that sludge is what emerges...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

An invitation to creativity

I read a wonderful passage in Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening this morning:

"The mind's tendency to grasp onto solid forms is like a bird in flight always looking for the next branch to land on.  And this narrow focus prevents us from appreciating what it is like to sail through space, to experience what one Hasidic master called the 'between stage' -- a primal state of potentiality that gives birth to new possibilities."

That soaring emptiness between the concepts, concerns and constructions of the mind, he says, is the source of all creativity, and I think I know what he means: when I am in that space, I get, not just the freedom and the feel of air under my wings, but also the coolness of the forest, the clearness of a bird's song, and the rush of a waterfall.

And even though he's describing that as the space between landing on the branches, there's a part of me that lives, not for the branches, but for the tiny moments between thoughts and obsessions, the moments of pure clarity... Which I think is what yesterday's poem was addressing, in Coleman Barks' book, A Year with Rumi:

Some song or something

Birdsong brings relief
to my longing.

I am just as ecstatic as they are,
but with nothing to say.

Please, universal soul, practice
some song, or something, through me

I'm thinking this poem should be subtitled "The Artist's/Musician's/Poet's Lament."

Friday, May 20, 2011

One Transparent Sky

One Transparent Sky

Lovers think they are looking for each other,
but there is only one search.

Wandering this world is wandering that,
both inside one transparent sky.
In here there is no dogma and no heresy.

The miracle of Jesus is himself,
not what he said or did about the future.
Forget the future.  I would worship someone
who could do that.

On the way you may want to look back, or not,
but if you can say, "There is nothing ahead,"
there will be nothing there.

Stretch your arms and take hold
the cloth of your clothes with both hands.
The cure for pain is in the pain.

Good and bad are mixed.  If you don't have both,
you do not belong with us.

When someone gets lost, is not here,
he must be inside us.  There is no place like that
anywhere in the world.

--Rumi,  from Coleman Barks' A Year With Rumi

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Lord of Beauty

The Lord of Beauty

The lord of beauty enters the soul
as a man walks into an orchard in spring.

Come into me that way again.
Like a fresh idea in an artist's mind,
you fashion things before they come into being.

You sweep the floor like the man
who keeps the doorway.

When you brush a form clean,
it becomes what it truly is.

You guard your silence perfectly
like a waterbag that does not leak.

You live where Shams lives,
because your heart-donkey
was strong enough to take you there.

-- Rumi

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There's a flaw in my software...

Yesterday was sunny and warm, and, unaccustomed to the shift (and, frankly, enjoying the heat) we didn't draw the shades in the living room when the afternoon sun began beating in -- which meant the bedroom was unusually warm (since we also hadn't opened the usual window -- hey, we're adjusting here!) when bedtime rolled around.

So, after tossing and turning a while, I decided to come down and play with some more images -- surely THAT would put me to sleep! -- and this is what emerged. 

I think it may actually be a result of a flaw in my software; I'll be interested to see if that particular feature is still there after I re-start my computer.  But while it lasted (and you can be CERTAIN I'll try this trick again!) it brought amazing depth and interest to what started out as a picture of a ceilling.

But of course, that's the thing about flaws -- they almost always contain extraordinary treasures and opportunities.  Which means, I think, that, rather than berating ourselves for our ongoing mistakes and bad habits; for all the ways we derail ourselves and fail to live up to what we know we could be capable of, "if only...", it might be more productive to take a closer look; to get to know the inner rationale behind those repeated choices. 

As I read this morning in John Welwood's book, Toward a Psychology of Awakening,  "What is often confusing is that our inner resources have become so interwoven with our defensive strategies that we do not know how to sort out the gold from the dross within ourselves.  Yet... if every defensive pattern contains hidden intelligence and resources, this means that we do not have to reject the defensive personality.  Instead, we need to crack it open, so that we can discover and gain access to the intelligence and resources that lie hidden within it."

I really like that.  I'm tired of being at war with myself; I'd love a chance to welcome the stupid and unappealing parts of myself back into my heart and put them to work for good...

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The power of frames

One curious aspect of these images I've been working on is that most of them have frames.  The frames are usually integrated with the image in some way, but they are also clearly separate, at least in origin -- which means that presenting them in any sort of larger format could be, well -- odd.  Why would you frame something that was already framed?  Wouldn't it begin to feel a little... boxed in?

Which is how the figure in the center of this one feels to me  -- a bit, anyway.  Sort of a combination of boxed in and set free?

All of which is intriguing, because one of my assignments for class this week ended up being about frames: how we frame things metaphorically (for example, a government is like a family, charged with responsibility for nurture and discipline), and about the power of personal frames of reference.

In the latter case, we tend to see (and be boxed in by) our personal frames of reference: preferred and avoided environments, habitual and avoided behaviors, personal capabilities and weaknesses, enabling and constraining beliefs, our sense of identity (what is me, what is "not me"), and our spiritual connection to meaning and purpose.  "This notion of a personal frame of reference acknowledges that our view of the world is unique; and, at the same time, that it is not the world as anybody else sees it.  We respond -- and can only respond -- to "our world" as viewed through our personal frame of reference, not directly to the world.  Our perceptions and interpretations of the current state and emerging events are all viewed through this frame." (from Rodgers, Informal Coalitions)

Our frames provide protection and boundaries, a way to sort out what we can perceive and a filter for experience.  But -- like Facebook and Google (as the TED talk below explains) -- they do have a way of excluding information that could actually be relevant.  

So I wonder if, by making these frames more porous, I am giving my images a chance to move outward, or if that is just an illusion, and I am only removing some of the appearance of the frame, but not actually opening to the world beyond the frame...

Enjoy this talk; I found it fascinating...

Monday, May 16, 2011

On grace and compression

While struggling to get an image to perform for me yesterday, I had one of those happy accidents that led me down another road, and this image is the end result (I'll put the happy accident, which I still don't like all that much, on my poetry blog today).

I actually really like this image -- and when I showed it to my husband he immediately noticed it would look great printed on metal.  But it feels a little compressed to me; not as spacious as I would like.  And I can't see a way to fix that without destroying the grace of those curves.

Which, I realize, is a perfect mirror of how I'm feeling this morning.  Jack Kornfield, in The Wise Heart, encouraged me to do a walking meditation this morning, to get more in touch with my body.  Not an outside brisk walk, but a slow, carefully paced, inside walk, up and down the hall, 10 to 20 paces, back and forth, paying attention to my body.

So I did that for 20 minutes instead of sitting as I usually do -- and I did it partly because I'd been reading in another book about inner spaciousness, and was realizing I haven't felt that much lately.  Maybe, I thought, if I can't get back to that meditating in a chair, walking could help?

I'm not sure it did, but I did notice that it stilled a lot of the chatter that's been going on in my head during meditation lately.  And it feels like it will be good for me to walk for 20 minutes a day: it's not aerobic exercise, of course, but the muscles that hold me upright have been getting a little soggy with age, so I'm thinking this is a good thing.

But what do I do about this feeling of compression?  As I walked, it felt like my body -- maybe, like 80% of it, was filled up and sort of sloshing with not-me, with thoughts and feelings and judgments that aren't really mine; they're shoulds and rules and opinions and expectations I've been carrying around with me since childhood that need to be released so real-me can breathe and get some perspective. 

Easy enough to say, but how do you open up some space in a life without disturbing the grace of it?  Is this a purely internal activity, or do external steps need to be taken as well?

And now I see that walking meditation is a way of simulating external steps.  Hmm. I guess I'll just keep doing that for a bit; see where it takes me!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

No green thumb, but still a gardener of sorts

Yesterday was a great day -- which usually means, for me, that I felt productive and got in some good people time.  It was a day for doing lots of schoolwork -- reading, and papers, and responding to others' papers -- but I also enjoyed blogging in the morning, got to sing in a nursing home and have lunch with a friend, and I visited my beloved Children's Hospital thrift shop and got to do some more graphic design work for them. (So much fun!)

I also spent a very pleasant couple of hours in the living room with my husband after dinner, watching the seals play offshore, listening to the rain, and sharing thoughts about organizational behavior and dysfunction.  I love discussing my schoolwork with him; he always has such great insights and stories to tell...

And then I got to create this lovely tree/garden -- which, I confess, was just an incredibly satisfying process. 

It's funny: I used to be an amazing gardener before my girls were born, but once they arrived on the scene I lost my green thumbs -- totally.  So reading in Jean Shinoda Bolen's Crones Don't Whine this morning, a chapter entitled "Crones Have Green Thumbs," I was initially a bit put off.  But she was quick to say that what she really meant was that we crones know how to nurture, when to weed and what to prune; we know how to protect what is vulnerable; we get that there are seasons... "Crones know that something small can grow big, that something can bloom or bear fruit before it dies."

I think we also know that nothing lasts forever -- which may explain why I was so concerned by that failed image yesterday.  But working with this one last night I could see this series is not yet done, and that I'm learning as I go along, just like a gardener: what to add, what to prune, what to allow to expand, what to weed out...  This image just... flowed, poured, like spirit.

I always love it when things seem to pour through me, rather than having to churn them out.  Which is kind of why I love doing the poetry blog, which almost always works that way.  Not that it's great poetry, but ... it's easy; it flows. 

Hmm.  Interesting, given that yesterday's posts were about resistance.  I wonder where this is going...

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Dealing with resistance

To me, this image is an experiment that failed.  You may disagree, or you may think this is not the first of my experiments to fail! (You would of course be right about that, but this is the first one I was really reluctant to post.) 

This is not me seeking comfort or reassurance; I am actually seeing this as an opportunity to talk about what happens when things break down.

I am, in school right now, taking a course on intervening in systems, and, of course, you really only intervene in a system when something is broken.  So this morning, in a discussion about resistance, it became apparent that many people see resistance as something to be fearful of, to fix, to break down, or to overcome -- kind of like a bit of grit that's gotten stuck between the gears and needs to be removed (if you look at an organization as a machine, with interlocking gears and parts.)

But if you look at an organization as a living system, then resistance can be an important indicator, a place of growth, productivity and change; the grit in the oyster that eventually results in a pearl.

So failure, to me, works a bit like resistance: I bump up against an experience like the one I had with this image, and some part of me wants to shut down.  Sometimes I even think, well, I guess I've milked this well dry and it's time to move on. 

But what if (to milk that metaphor) you just need to tunnel a little deeper and you could hit this huge aquifer of creativity?  What if the way you've been approaching the problem is shallow, and if you were to stay with it, lean into it, really look hard at what's not working and why, it could take you into a whole new realm?  You won't know if you don't try.

It takes so much courage to be an artist sometimes, to ignore all the voices that panic and shut down at the least sign of resistance.  Which just brings me back to yesterday's post: it's really not so much about courage as it is about faith.  If we trust, have faith, that we are onto something, doing what we were born to do; if we listen constantly for cues that the path needs to shift, but always in the context of faith that there IS a path, that there IS guidance, and support, that there is some Divine Presence out there (or within us) reaching out to lift us when we get stuck or anxious -- then the resistance can become an opportunity.

It's all in how you look at it.  But I think the first step is really what my husband always says to the girls when they screw up or encounter unexpected obstacles: "So.  What did you learn from this?"

Maybe that's where the faith comes in: he trusts that there will ALWAYS be something we can learn, and that learning can make a difference.

So.  What did I learn from this?

Oy; don't get me started!  (and can you hear the resistance?)

Friday, May 13, 2011

Your money or your faith

A friend recommended I read a book by Jean Shinoda Bolen called Crones Don't Whine, so of course, now that I'm reading it, I'm very tempted to whine; I always was a stubborn and contrary child!

By now you've probably realized my husband was laid off two years ago and still hasn't found a job (nor have I, despite heading bravely off to school to learn new skills).  But that's not what I'm whining about -- it's been a challenging couple of years, but it's also mostly fun having him around...

And maybe this isn't really a whine.  But when I was creating images a couple of days ago, this one emerged.  I mostly just go where they take me, but this one took me to Italy -- Tuscany, to be exact -- and I just followed right along, layering pictures from our trip there and even adding a map.

So the truth is, although I am a decidedly rural person and Tuscany was quite lovely, I'm even more partial to islands.  So what I truly miss about not having the money to travel is Venice, and Capri, and Burano.  See what I mean?  It's not a whine, exactly; more a fond reminiscence -- I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to go to Italy at all, ever; I had never even been out of the country until I was 50, so Italy was QUITE the grand adventure!  And SO BEAUTIFUL.

I wonder if that's why these images have been so lush and satisfying -- some part of me is trying to provide that sumptuous Italian feel, those visuals my eye still hungers for...

It's amazing, you know, the messages our bodies send us if we take time to listen or indulge them.  I keep thinking of my coffee date yesterday, with a friend whose job is also on the line, and how every part of her seemed to be in motion.  Words couldn't calm her, touch was temporary, and hugs, though satisfying, were clearly not likely to have a lasting effect.  Her whole body was saying, "Emergency! Emergency!  Don't just sit there, DO SOMETHING!"

Jack Kornfield tells us, in The Wise Heart, that mindfulness and attention will actually help put some of that activity to rest.  But having had a few panic attacks myself over the years, I wonder how much that can actually help.  Mostly it seems like we just have to live with the fear, acknowledge it, act on it as best we can, and trust that "this, too, shall pass."

But of course, that takes faith.  And faith, it seems to me, is in short supply these days... kind of like money.  But if I have to choose between the two, I think I'll keep picking faith -- somehow I think, in the long run, it will prove to be more useful.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

There are always clues

When my younger daughter was in middle school I was invited to give a couple of workshops on composition, and this (or the base image of this) was one of the images I brought in as an example.  I had taken it in Hawaii; we had just landed after a long flight, we were all exhausted, and my younger daughter went to the window to look at the pool, pulling aside the curtain.

The light was lovely, so I pulled out my camera, and this was the result.  What I had not expected, however, taking this in to illustrate the workshop, was that the boys in the classroom immediately assumed this was a nude woman in a shower.  I knew she was clothed, and knew the circumstances, but they saw what they were programmed by their hormones to see, and I had to immediately put it away to stifle all the titters and giggles.

... which is, I think, another reminder that what we see is always colored by what we expect to see: those same assumptions I spoke of yesterday; the ones that keep us boxed in, and limit our perceptions of possibility -- assumptions that can both limit our ability to find our way out of difficult situations (or find a way to appreciate such situations or learn from them) and, taken to their extremes, can result in activities like racial profiling and war.

It's all well and good to suggest that we are trapped by our assumptions.  But how can we escape that trap?  I'm beginning to think that mindfulness and presence may be the only workable answer.  If I am fully present to what is happening right here, right now, then I am not overlaying either past experiences or future hopes and worries on the picture before me; on my sense impressions right here, in this moment.

And if I do that, stay right here with it, I can see that though her arms are bare, the young woman's body is too masked for me to assume clothing or no clothing -- and, more importantly, there is WAY too much light in the picture for it to have been taken in a shower -- unless, of course, the shower has in it a very large window... Also, the hair is clearly not wet; it's too fluffy.

So there are clues.  There are always clues.  Sometimes they take the form of coincidences, sometimes they are just delicate impressions, fleeting glimpses... But if we pay attention, right here, in this moment, I am beginning to suspect that everything we need to know is there for us. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Swimming outside the box

My husband sent us this quotation this morning:   "Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to continually be part of unanimity." -- Christopher Morley 

It's a perfect quote for our family -- we all tend to march to a different drum, and we have this pat phrase: You Can't Put Walkers in a Box.  Just when you think we're classifiable, we break out of the mold: there's a stubborn complexity that comes down from both sides of the family and has resulted in some intriguing trait combinations.  

Our younger daughter's immediate response to this quotation was to send us to today's Google homepage, which features a delightful homage to Martha Graham, one of Bennington College's most famous graduates.

Graham is, of course, a perfect example of the courage exemplified in this quotation; she completely revolutionized modern dance with her breathtaking originality.  And, in fact, she set a standard for that that Bennington students still struggle to emulate -- which is part of why my daughter chose to go there: she's used to being around folks who are a little out of the norm.  

But as John Donne tells us, no man is an island: however individual or original we are, we still need to operate in community.  Jack Kornfield, in The Wise Heart, tells us that the sixth principle of Buddhist psychology is this:  Our life has universal and personal nature.  Both dimensions must be respected if we are to be happy and free.  And even the book I'm reading for school right now talks about the importance of paying attention to both corporate and individual needs in a business environment; that, in fact, the tension between the two provides opportunity for creativity and growth.

So yes: we humans are social animals, and will always be walking a line between what I want or need and what's best for me and what my community/business/neighborhood/family wants or needs, and what is best for the group.  And I think we do that by staying open, by exploring new ways of being, both as individuals and communities, by making a choice occasionally step out of the box, or swim against the current. 

So let me ask you this: what's got you feeling boxed in today?  What could you be doing differently?  Is something silly beckoning you?  Today's quotation in The Promise of a New Day is this: "The distance doesn't matter; only the first step is difficult."   I think what keeps us in the box is not the rest of the world but our own attitudes and resignation -- it's a sort of Buddhist concept: we are the architects of our own boxes, our own suffering, our own behavior patterns.  And a single step can sometimes take us -- either as individuals or as a community -- on a completely different journey.

So if that's true, what might you do -- or think, or read -- differently today? 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Creative conflict

One recurring theme for me -- and, I suspect, for many women in my age bracket -- has to do with knowing and acknowledging what I want/need/like, and acting on that knowledge.  And I'm realizing that these images I've been creating lately are a way of working through that process; of learning to listen to my own deep inner yearnings and acting on them.

... which can be pretty amusing, in cases like this one: this is how the picture evolved: I saw mountains, and a statue, so I added mountains and a statue that seemed to echo the shapes I was seeing, and then I played with the colors around them until they were visually satisfying.  So now, when I look at this image, it feeds me -- especially the colors -- and yet some other part of me (frankly, I think it's my mom!) is recoiling in horror from the image: it's cheesy, it's tacky, it's way too Kincaid-like, and OMG, did you have to add the Virgin Mary?  Catholicism is tacky, and so is She!

...and then some OTHER voice is going "you can't say that about Catholicism, that's terrible!" and yet another voice is whining, "I'm not saying _I_ feel that way; that's my MOM talking" (and let me just say this: being from the South, my mom had lots of other prejudices we won't mention here.)

So there's this bizarre inner dialog going on about actually displaying the image here: should I or shouldn't I, should I explain or justify,  and that all-too-familiar one: WhatWillPeopleTHINK?  Some part of me loves this picture, and some other part of me is rolling her eyes and going "That is SO not Okay!"  No WONDER artists can feel paralyzed at times -- it's like Isaac Asimov's story, "I, Robot" (have I mentioned this one before?).

That's the story where a robot gets out of control and the way they finally disable it is to give it conflicting instructions: the internal conflict burns out the circuitry and the robot subsides in a pile of sparks and smoke.

And now, looking at this image, I can see the sparks in the distance, and the smoke as well, and through it all the Virgin Mary is standing in this very cool place, her hands out in this calm acceptance and blessing, "speaking words of wisdom"... in the midst of an image whose initial  essence is founded on chemical disintegration.  And what is she saying?

Well, at the moment, it looks to me like she's saying, "This is life: highs and lows, mountains and valleys, fire and smoke and flame and ashes and cool waters, each in their turn.  That's just how it is -- so deal with it.  ... and I love you, through it all."

... or, in the Beatles' translation, "Let it be, let it be."

Jeez.  She even kinda SOUNDS tacky.  But I still love her.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Opening the doors to self

I am realizing this morning, reading Jack Kornfield's The Wise Heart, how easy it is to get caught up in identity and ego; to get tangled and anxious over what is me and what is not me, and how people might perceive that.

It's as if we create doors within ourselves, only opening them to a few select people -- and sometimes there are deeper levels of doors to which even we ourselves have lost the keys.  Or perhaps we tossed them at an early age, deciding what lies behind them is just not fit for viewing. 

But self is so much bigger than those narrow definitions of me and not me, so much more passionate and creative and exciting than what we allow to be opened; like a fabulous garden spilling over with a profusion of vibrant and colorful plants...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

When it's not all that instinctive...

This was where my photographic yearnings took me this morning; it seems an odd place to go for Mothers' Day.  But now, as I look at it, I remember that there were several years when the Mothers' Day present I most wanted was alone time, so my husband would take the girls off somewhere fun for a while so I could just breathe a bit.

He asked last night if I had any expectations for Mothers' Day, and I said no; I thought I was good -- he had, after all, brought home flowers and my favorite wine earlier in the day, and there's a package on the counter from one of the girls with "Happy Mothers' Day I Love You Mom" scrawled on it.  (I haven't opened it yet).

Mothering, of course, is not a task that ever seems to end, but there have certainly been times when I found it more challenging and demanding than I do now.  I suspect that's why I enjoyed my week in Portland as much as I did: it was a chance to experience the slightly more demanding times again, but without the intense emotional connections that complicate things so much when you're mothering teenagers.

In my reading in Kornfield's The Wise Heart this morning, he's talking about the ability to shift identities: the way animal trackers and detectives get inside the head of the one they're following, or an actor becomes the part she plays, or, he says, "A mother naturally and instinctively identifies with her baby and knows why she is crying."

That seems pretty idealized to me: yes, over time, you get so you recognize the different kinds of cries -- I was even able to do that with Kiwi, the little gosling we rescued and raised.  But was that a natural and instinctive identification?  And did I do that with my kids?  I'm not sure: I adored -- and still adore -- my daughters, but I was certainly not this perfect idealized mother, and my own mother was even less so.

My suspicion is that those of us who long for that instinctive knowingness are likely to be disappointed if we look for it in another human being; my sense is that only God is able to enter that fully into an understanding of us.  As mothers we surely long to know what it is our children need from us.  And if we're lucky we sometimes get it right and actually give it to them.  But I guess, for me, Mothers' Day is more about honoring the desire to serve, the willingness to continue giving, the determination to find and do what is best for our our children, and the ways we set aside our own instinctive self-servingness on behalf of others, than it is about our actual successful instinctive and intuitive understanding of our children's needs.

For any number of reasons -- some having to do with me, and some having to do with her and her own upbringing -- my mother found raising me to be a very difficult task.  And so today I set aside whatever resentments I still carry about that, and honor her memory with a little understanding: yes it was hard, yes she screwed up some, and yes, in her way, she loved me, and gave what she could -- and I did, after all, turn out okay.  So thanks, Mom.  You did good.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

This, too, shall pass

What creatures of habit we are!  It astonishes me, sometimes, to re-learn that simple truth, to encounter again the pleasures of the familiar, to see them in high contrast to the equally delightful pleasures of the unfamiliar.

I was off-kilter all day yesterday, close to tears at times and wondering what on earth had set me off, awash in this sadness... and now, today, I am restored to equanimity, simply by the familiar rituals: a cup of coffee in the company of Jack Kornfield, feeding the fish, walking the dog, then settling into my favorite chair for 20 minutes of centering prayer... It's all so refreshing (-- and lovely, of course, to be home.)

... which makes me realize, as Kornfield explains, that all these states of mind are mine and yet not-me; they are like clouds passing over the sun -- and sometimes rain and thunderstorms -- but the sun is still there, shining brightly beneath its cloak of feelings and sensations... just like this little statue, whom I last saw under a light dusting of snow, was still waiting for me at the bottom of a hill in Portland, glowing happily in a patch of sun.

I can tell myself, when I'm in the grip of these odd moods, that they will eventually fade away, but perhaps that's not the way?  Perhaps it was best to do just what I did: to notice, to feel it, to marvel at the source and the intensity, but not to get too caught up or to make it more than it was.  And then, this morning, to breathe again the stillness and the waves of love; to know that, too, will shift with time, and, below it all, to sense this marvelous oneness with light and life...  I wonder, sometimes, if that's a big part of faith, to know, whatEVER is going on in heart and mind, that "this, too, shall pass."

... and then, saying that, I feel a sense of anxiety kicking in.  What is it in us that feels so threatened by the ephemeral nature of things?


Friday, May 6, 2011

Where I'm happy to be

This adorable cottage sits across the street from the home I was staying in earlier this week.  And, lovely though it is, I chose to place it here today because it sings to me today of home -- which is where I'm very happy to be: back in my own bed, able to walk my own beach, licked by my own cat and wrapped in the arms of my husband.

I loved Portland -- don't get me wrong; if I had a chance to move there, I'd definitely consider it.  But here, in my somewhat less charming domicile, is home, and, whatever challenges it brings, this is where I'm happy to be.

Now.  If only I could get as comfortable in my body and soul as I am in my home... again -- it's clear I'm not in Nirvana yet!   But I'm working on it...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tied up in knots

Though today, again, is cool and gray with intermittent drizzle, yesterday was a spectacular day in Portland -- almost tropical, as you can see from this image, shot around the corner from a darling gallery recommended to me by a friend and fellow art-lover...

The galleries I visited were truly inspiring, and I came home (after stopping to pick up some foodstuffs for the kids) to discover that their cleaning lady had locked the house after finishing for the day, and I had no way to get in (and no access to the lunch I had impetuously postponed in order to get more gallery time.)

It's amazing how such small glitches in plans can incite a sudden shift in mood, so it was with a somewhat guilty conscience that I read in Kornfield's Wise Heart this morning about the monk who would deliberately make his students walk miles, barefoot, in the heat, or keep them all night telling them stories, and then poke at them when they whined.

We're supposed to be above all this -- or at least apart from it, somehow; to accept what life throws us with a grin, understanding that what lies beneath the reaction is constant; that suffering is all a result of the attitude we hold toward the disturbance.

So.  Duly noted, Mr. Kornfield.  Duly noted, also, the immediate tensing of the shoulders and degradation of language as I wandered around the outside of this mansion of a house, trying each door with no success...

I've been editing the poems from my poetry blog, attempting to turn them into some semblance of an ordered, cohesive collection by sorting their subjects.  Not surprisingly, there's a significant number of poems that I can file under the subject heading, "Not yet enlightened."

(PS: I drove to the kids' school and got the older one out of class, explained the problem, and borrowed the key -- so not only did I get that belated lunch (which did a lot for my mood) but I also got dinner done on time.  So it all turned out great.  And it often does.  Why, then, do we get so tied up in knots?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Luminous reflections

"This is the mirror-like nature of consciousness: reflective, luminous, untarnished, and peaceful."  -- Jack Kornfield, The Wise Heart

After waking to this view this morning and reading this lovely passage, I decided to set aside the pieces I've been working on and give us both something calmer and more peaceful to contemplate.

I love those words -- reflective, luminous, untarnished, peaceful -- and I confess it's been a while since I was in touch with that part of myself.  Perhaps today I should spend some time looking out this window and letting the cool pinks and bright greens of spring wash over me...

But this afternoon I'll be going to a track meet -- my first -- so mostly I'm just hoping it doesn't rain, as it looks like we may be there a while...

In the meantime, I invite you to find a minute in your day to breathe into that reflective luminous self and let its peace fill your soul...

Monday, May 2, 2011

Windows on the World

My young friend Marie was interviewing me last night about the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (her 7th grade history class is doing a unit on decades) and I realized -- though I could clearly picture that on the news -- I actually remember far more details about Kennedy's assassination.

Most specifically, I remember hearing about it in geometry class, and leaving school early, and walking in our front door, which looked like this, and telling my mother about it (she hadn't yet heard the news)... and then, later, the three of us, my father, my mother and I, standing at those windows, looking out with this shared sense of devastation: the world had changed.

And then, of course, just as we were finishing this conversation, the news came on about Osama bin Laden.  Marie seemed relatively untouched about it, but my own daughter texted me immediately, and I realized -- she was Marie's age when 9/11 happened, which was roughly my age when Kennedy was assassinated.

So for my daughter, 9/11 is probably as seminal a moment as the assassination was for me: we both remember -- because she was dressing for school, her first week in a new school (we had just moved to Bainbridge Island),  and she had the radio on, some station run by college students, who basically put their own radio in front of the mike so NPR was broadcasting over their station.  "Mama, something bad is happening," she said, and we stood listening in horror, knowing the world would never be quite the same.

And yet both of us, listening to the news last night, were saddened -- despite the devastation of 9/11-- for Osama and his family: she was sad to hear he might be buried at sea, and expressed a hope he might find what he was looking for in heaven.  Reading her texts, I felt an enormous welling up of love for her: these are such significant events in her life, and I am pleased by her compassionate response -- both to the victims and to Obama's speech.

Somehow, this morning, time is compressed, and I am standing again at the windows of that little house in Cincinnati, staring out at the devastation with my parents, only now it's the World Trade Center, and the rubble we have made in the middle east in our attempts to avenge that act of terrorism.  Like my daughter, I am worried: attacks of reprisal feel inevitable.  Does it matter that some of us are saddened by the killing?  In the end, will our compassion make a difference? 

I don't know.  I can only feel what I feel, and hope...

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Why and how and logistics

Response to Your Question

Why ask about behavior
when you are soul-essence
and a way of seeing into presence?
Plus you are with us.  
How could you worry?

You may as well free a few words
from your vocabulary:
why and how and impossible.
Open the mouth-cage 
and let those fly away.

We were all born by accident,
but still this wandering caravan
will make camp in perfection.
                                        -- Rumi

A sudden change in plans; I need to pack up and go on the road for a bit, taking care of stuff for a friend.  The posts here may get a bit irregular.  But I'll keep exploring these images, assessing what they have to say.  It's not exactly a vacation, and I won't quite be a wandering caravan.  There might be unexpected challenges.  But I expect there might also be moments of perfection along the way; we'll see.  At any rate, I'm a bit distracted this morning by why and how and logistics; so I'll stop here and just trust that "you are with us.  How could you worry?"

It's all good...