Thursday, June 30, 2011

Behind the waterfall

The Poet With His Face in His Hands

You want to cry aloud for your
mistakes.  But to tell the truth the world
doesn't need any more of that sound.

So if you're going to do it and can't
stop yourself, if your pretty mouth can't
hold it in, at least go by yourself across

the forty fields and the forty dark inclines
of rocks and water to the place where
the falls are flinging out their white sheets

like crazy, and there is a cave behind all that
jubilation and water-fun and you can
stand there, under it, and roar all you

want and nothing will be disturbed; you can
drip with despair all afternoon and still,
on a green branch, its wings just lightly touched

by the passing foil of the water, the thrush,
puffing out its spotted breast, will sing
of the perfect, stone-hard beauty of everything.

-- Mary Oliver

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beyond knowing

What I know
I could put into a pack
as if it were bread and cheese, and carry it
on one shoulder,
important and honorable, but so small!
While everything else continues, unexplained
and unexplainable.  How wonderful it is
to follow a thought quietly
to its logical end.
I have done this a few times.
But mostly I just stand in the dark field,
in the middle of the world, breathing
in and out.  Life so far doesn't have any other name
but breath and light, wind and rain.
If there's a temple, I haven't found it yet.
I simply go on drifting, in the heaven of the grass
and the weeds.

-- Mary Oliver, from "What Is There Beyond Knowing"

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The bright core of failure

The Bright Core of Failure

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

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

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

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

-- from Coleman Barks, A Year With Rumi

Monday, June 27, 2011

On Sacred Space

Yesterday we learned about the four axioms of Sacred Space:

1.  Sacred Space is not chosen; it chooses you.

2.  Sacred Space is ordinary place, ritually made extraordinary.

3.  Sacred Space can be trod upon without being in it. (and we were given a lovely example of this in Wendell Berry's poem, "Vacation;" see below)

4.  The impulse of Sacred Space both draws you in and sends you out.

The Vacation

Once there was a man who filmed his vacation.
He went flying down the river in his boat
with his video camera to his eye, making
a moving picture of the moving river
upon which his sleek boat moved swiftly
toward the end of his vacation. He showed
his vacation to his camera, which pictured it,
preserving it forever: the river, the trees,
the sky, the light, the bow of his rushing boat
behind which he stood with his camera
preserving his vacation even as he was living it
so that after he had had it he would still
have it. It would be there. With a flick
of a switch, there it would be. But he
would not be in it. He would never be in it.

So now, you know, I have to ask: where, for you, is Sacred Space?  And, when you're in it, are you really there?

Sunday, June 26, 2011

God on a hillside

Imagine a lovely old lodge, built of rough-hewn logs, perched on a hillside, surrounded by gardens, with beautiful decks overlooking the Hood Canal and the Olympic Mountains.  Imagine, now, spending your days here with 20 or so other like-minded souls, many of them dear friends of long standing; all of us doing art and studying the poetry of Mary Oliver; being fed fabulous meals, and starting and ending each day with chanting, prayer, meditation, music and poetry; serenaded to sleep each night by two lovely men with guitars...

Yup.  You're right.  I've died and gone to Heaven! No, Really!

And there are other gifts: there are two couples and another woman here, people I've never met before, who know -- in their far away places -- people who are dear to me and key parts of my life history.  How amazing is that?  A couple from San Diego who know the maid of honor in my wedding, who lives in Alabama.  A couple from Houston who know a woman who's been part of a close network of friends for 20 years.  A woman from Calgary who knows a woman I've been on several retreats with and corresponded with off and on for years...

But the best aspect of this time together is the sense of Divine Flow; that we are all linked, with one another and with nature, with you and with God and with the sea and the stars and the birds, and that there is an energy, a joy, that flows from and through us and out again into the world...

Yes, I know, it sounds woo-woo.  But what grounds and links it all is this amazing poetry.  So I share here with you a brief sample: 

Song of the Builders

On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God --

a worthy pastime.
Near me I saw
a single cricket;
it was moving the grains of the hillside

this way and that way.
How great was its energy,
how humble its effort.
Let us hope

it will always be like this,
each of us going on
in our inexplicable ways
building the universe.
  -- Mary Oliver

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Flapping our wings in Oz

Basking in the afternoon sun
on a neighbor's porch,
a flutter catches my eye:
a butterfly,
surfing the breeze
with her zebra wings,
brushing a speck of pollen from the green hosta,
pausing to sip from a damp marigold,
kissing the cheek of St. Francis,
then off again to curtsy
to the iris, and the rose.

I wonder if she's lonely here:
I haven't seen her kind before --
perhaps she was blown off course
by some catastrophic storm;
one of many creatures
left homeless by a wild wind.

There are others of us, you know,
who don't belong --
and yet we do, and thrive,
transplanted and transformed,
flapping our zebra wings for joy in Oz,
thrilled at the sight
of all this unexpected color...

Friday, June 24, 2011

Emotion as a bridge to compassion

Last night during our meditation period, a Mary Oliver piece entitled "The Bird" was read aloud to us.  It's beautiful, and very moving; I definitely recommend you read it but it's far too long to include here.

So when we hear or read things like that, things that awaken an emotional response, what do we do with that?  It can be challenging to look at that emotion too closely -- as Welwood says in "Toward a Psychology of Awakening,"  "If ego is the tendency to hold on to ourselves and control our experience, then feeling our emotions directly and letting their energy flow freely threatens ego's whole control structure.  

When we open to the actual texture and quality of a feeling, instead of trying to control or judge it, "I" -- the activity of trying to hold ourselves together -- starts to dissolve into "it" -- the larger aliveness present in the feeling.  If I fully open to my sorrow, it may intensify for a while and I may feel all the grief of it.  Yet opening to this pain, without stories, also makes me feel more alive.  As I turn to face my demons, they reveal themselves as my very own life energy.

Emotions, we could say, are the blood shed by ego -- they start to flow whenever we are touched, whenever the defensive shell around the heart is pierced.  Trying to control them is an attempt to keep this shell from cracking.  Letting ego bleed, on the other hand, opens the heart.  Then we rediscover ourselves as living beings who are exposed to the world, interconnected with all other beings.  Letting go of judgments and story lines and feeling this naked quality of being alive wakes us up and nurtures compassion for ourselves and others."

Ah.  That explains it.  As I finally begin to allow myself to feel ALL that I feel, with acceptance rather than condemnation, the sense of connection to all life arises, and the barriers between self and other begin to fall away.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Together and alone

"What wonderful creatures we human beings are -- so alike, and yet so different!  We can work together; we have built the Pyramids, the Great Wall, the great cathedrals of Europe, the temples of Peru.  We can play music, make quilts, run hospitals, program computers.  Yet we can also work alone.  Each one of us has the power to think, to plan, to carry out projects that are distinctly ours.

We are both interdependent and independent, and both of these characteristics can give us both joy and pain.  Sometimes we feel burdened and oppressed by other people.  They need us, they weigh on us.  We think that if only they would leave us alone, we could realize our true potential.

At other times we feel desperately, achingly alone.  Unsupported, abandoned, at such times we may think that if only we had someone on our side, if only someone cared, we would succeed.  True freedom, however, like true security, lies within us.  We cannot get them from others; we must find them in ourselves."

-- Casey and Vanceburg, The Promise of a New Day

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Connected at the roots

Yesterday was full of blessings -- time spent with friends I haven't seen in a long time, rich conversations, time outside by the waterfront, surrounded by roses and poppies...

And the workers were here again this morning, so my morning routine is off again.  Eventually I'll get this under control and figure out a workaround, but in the meantime things aren't flowing quite as smoothly.

So I thought I'd just share this beautiful rose with you, and today's reading from A Year With Rumi:

Behind Each Eye

Spring overall.  But inside us
there is another unity.

Behind each eye
one glowing weather.

Every forest branch moves differently
in the breeze, but as they sway,
they connect at the roots.

I may be swaying off course a bit this week -- and I leave tomorrow afternoon for a retreat on Mary Oliver; not sure if I'll have internet access -- but, well -- you and I and this rose; we'll all still be connected at the roots.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Mixed blessings

I'd been struggling all day yesterday to get any sense of where my art was going, so I wasn't prepared for it to make a sudden breakthrough at 11:00 last night.  I went to bed anyway, but even though I'd finished an image, the discovery it represented really excited me, so much so that the creative juices were just roiling away inside and wouldn't let me sleep. 

So I got up and played some more; didn't finally crawl into bed until after 2 am.  And then, of course, the workmen picked today to appear at 7:30 to start shingling the house: I was awakened by the dog's frantic barking and had to throw on clothes and stumble wearily downstairs to meet with the contractor.


This is the second image: it got birthed somewhere between midnight and 2, and I'm not sure it was worth the pain.  But I does sort of depict the roiling depths of those juices last night -- and I like the sort of murkiness of it; the sturm und drang -- although maybe that's because that's how it feels here with all the hammering; our cats are TOTALLY freaked out.

So that's it: I haven't really slept, haven't meditated, haven't done my morning reading, and am trying to type with a cat lying on my wrists.  But in the end all the broken and peeling shingles will be gone.  And I'm not completely sure, but I have a feeling this new direction in imaging will keep me exploring possibilities, busy and fed for months to come.

So it's all good: like life, full of mixed blessings!

Monday, June 20, 2011

Not an easy road

The mama deer who's been hanging around our yard this spring brought her two fawns over to graze yesterday.  It seemed doubly appropriate, as one of my own fawns came home to graze yesterday, in honor of Fathers' Day.

She did a lovely job of staying upbeat for the occasion, but there's no doubt that she's in the midst of a very difficult transition, and after she left I found myself awash in waves of sadness and wondering if it would have been better to give her space to express her true feelings.

So of course my reading this morning, in John Wellman's Toward a Psychology of Awakening, is totally relevant:

"What is sadness?  The word sad is related etymologically to satisfied and sated, meaning full.  so in sadness there is a fullness of heart, a fullness of feeling in response to being touched by the sweet, tranistory, ungraspable quality of human existence.

This empty fullness is one of the most significant of human experiences.  The poignancy of not knowing who we are and not being able to hold on to or control our quickly passing life connects us with the vastness and depth of the living heart.  It invites us to let go of the fixed reference points we use to prop ourselves up.  If we judge or reject this sadness, then its vital intelligence congeals into the heaviness of depression.  In overlooking the opportunity that sadness provides for touching and awakening the heart, we quite literally lose heart.

... Depression starts creeping up on us the moment we imagine there is something wrong with us because we cannot keep pain at bay, because we feel vulnerable or sad, because we cannot rest on our laurels, because we do not achieve total fulfillment through work, relationships, or any other finite worldly arrangement, or because we sense the hollowness of our self-created identity.  If we were to look more deeply into any of these experiences, it could help us awaken to the essential openness of our nature, which is the only real source of happiness and joy.  But depression takes a different route -- blaming and recriminating when we cannot control reality.  And this inevitably shuts down our capacity to respond and feel grateful for the beauty of life just as it is.  

Emptiness need not be depressing.  For it is what allows life to keep creating and recreating itself anew in each moment.  And this makes creativity, expansiveness, growth, and real wisdom possible."

But of course it's often easier to blame ourselves and the world, or to stuff the sadness down, than it is to feel those raw feelings.  It's just that the easy road is rarely the road to health and growth, to finding our calling or effecting positive change...


Sunday, June 19, 2011


My friend Robin posted a similar picture on her blog, and it inspired me to do the same; it was fun going through the old family photos and putting this together. 

I have, as I mentioned a few days ago, father issues, stemming from the time of his death, but that was also several years ago.  What's great today is that it feels good to be able to put his photo here -- and I know he would have enjoyed this blog.

We've been watching reruns of Ally McBeal here lately ( I didn't have a television during the years she was broadcasting) and they have a way of saying outrageous things to each other and then saying "Bygones" as an invitation to not carry anger or irritation into the rest of the day. 

It's amusing,but I think it's also useful as an indicator of a working relationship, as if to say there will be surface irritations and disagreements but the relationship will endure.  And, well, you know what they say: the most challenging word in the Lord's Prayer is "as" (as in, forgive us our sins/debts/trespasses AS we forgive those who sin against us).  Although, speaking of that prayer, the hardest words for me over the last few years have been the opening two: "Our Father."  I mostly haven't been saying them...

So to put this here is a good thing; a sign of forgiveness.  I haven't forgotten, but I think I'm finally over it.  And I think the real pleasure of putting my father's picture here today (though I find it interesting to note that I used a newspaper clipping rather than a formal photo) is that I'm learning to say "bygones" to my Dad. 

Yeah, he screwed up.  But he also loved me -- as best he could.  And I loved him, too: he meant a lot to me, growing up.  And he was basically a good man.  So -- yeah, Dad.


Saturday, June 18, 2011

Blessings in the mud

"Just as muddy water contains clear water within it when the dirt settles out, all our negative tendencies reveal a spark of basic goodness and intelligence at their core.
--John Wellman, Toward a Psychology of Awakening

To me, these words are the heart of this book, and the essence of what I have been learning over this past year:  For every irritating habitual behavior we try to extinguish, I believe there is a root cause that arises out of basically pure motives.  I've often felt that every gift carries a curse, but I now also believe that every curse carries a gift. 

And if you can accept this, Welwood says, "psychological work becomes like aikido, the martial art that involves flowing with the attack, rather than against it.  By recognizing the deeper positive urge hidden within our ego strategies, we no longer have to treat them as an enemy.  After all, the strategies of the ego are all ways of trying to be.  They were the best we could do as a child.  And they're not all that bad, considering that they were dreamed up by the mind of a child.

Realizing that we did the best we could under the circumstances, and seeing ego as an imitation of the real thing -- an attempt to be ourselves in a world that did not recognize, welcome, or support our being -- helps us have more understanding and compassion for ourselves."

Thinking about that in the context of this image, I am reminded of a story I first told in this blog back in September of 2007.  But in case you weren't following me then, I think it bears repeating: I had been sitting in the Sanctuary of St. Joe's Catholic church in Seattle, and I remember looking at an absolutely glorious image in stained glass. There was one piece of glass in the image that really stood out for me: like the image above, it had blues, greens, a trace of purple, a dash of brown to set it off... and I remember staring at that piece of glass and longing -- praying-- desperately for some clarity, and, more specifically, for more innocence and purity of spirit.

When I went over to take a closer look I realized that piece of glass was not actually colored: the artist had covered clear glass with a sort of muddy glaze, and it was only when the light shone through the mud that the glass began to glow with the rich colors I found so appealing.

We are so often ashamed of the muddy bits in our lives.  But we fail to realize or acknowledge the many ways in which they enrich our experience, and fail to appreciate the goodness and clarity in which they arose.  If we can relax, accept, and understand that our foibles arise from perfectly understandable childhood coping mechanisms, we can learn compassion for ourselves, learn to "go with the flow," and instead of rejecting ourselves find ways to integrate those childhood concerns into a wholeness of being uniquely our own.

Friday, June 17, 2011

The lonely walk

When I was living on Orcas Island, I met regularly with a group of women friends, mostly artists, three of whom were single at the time.  Our time together was spent sharing meals and stories and whatever our latest art projects and challenges might be, celebrating events and rejoicing in each others' accomplishments. 

But it was understood, though rarely spoken about, that the friendship we shared also had a component of need associated with aging.  We were in our fifties then, and could begin to imagine being forced to deal with illness and disability; none of us wanted to face that alone.

Now that I'm in my sixties, I am beginning to understand that even with close friends around, the walk into old age will eventually become a lonely one.  As we listen to our bodies, we can begin to hear them winding down; begin to see how aging will unfold -- and however difficult it may be to watch our memories go, it's harder still to feel the blood and muscles slow.

And no, I don't normally think about this stuff, or worry about it.  But my role in this play is that of an elderly woman, a psychic, who is dying of Parkinson's disease; she does actually die in the play.  So, as an actress, I need to find and know that part of me that can identify with that... and it's challenging, exhilarating, and, well... a little scary. 

As always, I find reassurance in Rumi:

What's Not Here

I start out on this road, call it
Love or emptiness, I only know what's

not here: resentment seeds, back-
scratching greed, worrying about out-

come, fear of people. When a bird gets
free, it doesn't go back for remnants

left on the bottom of the cage! Close
by, I'm rain. Far off, a cloud of fire.

I seem restless, but I am deeply at ease.
Branches tremble, the roots are still.

I am a universe in a handful of dirt,
whole when totally demolished. Talk

about choices does not apply to me.
While intelligence considers options,

I am somewhere lost in the wind.

    -- Rumi

Ram Dass tells us that his spirit guide has said there is no need to be afraid of death:  It's really like taking off a shoe that never fit; a wonderful sense of release.  I suspect he's right, and that the hardest part of death is the fear that comes before, not the freedom that comes after.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Life on the mud flats

Over the last few days I've been reading a novel by Jim Lynch called The Highest Tide.  It's a first novel, rather Steinbeckian in its attention to detail, about a 13-year-old boy, small for his age, who spends most of his time prowling the mudflats of Olympia, Washington at low tide.  He finds (and notices, because he is not only attentive but a huge Rachel Carson fan) some unusual species and becomes a bit of a local phenomenon in the process.

I'm reading the book because I'm going to be playing a role in the play that was adapted from the book, but I'm enjoying it because I, too, live on mud flats: summer days are low tide days here, and it's always tempting to go out and poke around the mud to see what's floated in and what lives there beneath the rocks and the seaweed.  I don't do that much anymore -- the mud has a way of sucking off your shoes -- but it does give you a different perspective on life, and I've been enjoying the opportunity to relive the pleasure of that in this book.

Since I've just been reading about two hermit crabs battling over a snail shell each wants to call home, I'll share this poem from Mary Oliver:

The Hermit Crab

Once I looked inside
 the darkness
of a shell folded like a pastry
and there was a fancy face—

or almost a face—
it turned away
and frisked up its brawny forearms
so quickly

against the light
and my looking in
I scarcely had time to see it,

under the pure white roof
of old calcium
When I set it down, it hurried
along the tideline

of the sea,
which was slashing along as usual,
shouting and hissing
toward the future,

turning its back
with every tide on the past,
leaving the shore littered
every morning

with more ornaments of death—
what a pearly rubble
from which to choose a house
like a white flower—

and what a rebellion
to leap into it
and hold on,
connecting everything,

the past to the future—
which is of course the miracle—
which is the only argument there is
against the sea

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Some thoughts on risk-taking

The Wide Plain of Death

I placed one foot on the wide plain
of death, and some grand immensity
sounded on the emptiness.

I have felt nothing ever
like the wild wonder of that moment.

   -- Rumi

I think, reading this poem in the context of this image, that that must be part of the thrill of camping: a single campfire burning in a dark landscape, away from the city lights with only the stars to light the wide sky; that sense of being vulnerable and small in a wilderness full of unknowns and dangers...

It's another one of those places where opposites rub up against each other, where fear can rise and the intensity of it can feed our spirits.  I understand these concepts, but unlike the campers of the world I rarely if ever choose to go there, and only arrive kicking and screaming at the sharp points where dark and light collide...

I'm reading this morning about vulnerability, and the importance of it, and I realize how much I try to defend myself; how terrified I am to trust -- on any level -- and now, of course, that I understand the roots of that, I'm wondering: will I be able to let it go?  Because I also know I look forward to change more than the average soul, and have this curious tendency to go boldly into certain kinds of new adventures -- perhaps because I DO know I can trust MYSELF in certain circumstances.

Perhaps we all have this curious balance of risk-taking and risk-aversion...  What if, instead of beating ourselves up for the risks we fear to take, we were to celebrate the risks we DO take?  And isn't that why we need one another -- to hold each other's hands and leap?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A new perspective

My father died nine years ago, rather suddenly, leaving a mess behind that was hard to recover from.  My way of coping with the disconnect between who I thought he was and who he turned out to be has pretty much been to just cut out that part of my life.

It meant a re-invention of sorts, which was good: I had to become a lot more conscious about who I thought I was.  But it also meant a loss, and I've always wondered if there would ever come a time when I could allow myself access again to some of those childhood illusions.

So it was with some surprise and a bit of a smile that I heard echoes of his voice yesterday.  Not that I really liked what it had to say, but still... My father had a way of noticing me.  Which can, of course, be a mixed blessing when you're growing up.  But he had a sort of "I calls 'em as I sees 'em" stance that was refreshing, if irritating at times.  And, of course, like any human being, what he saw was always interpreted through the particular lens of his own experience.

Not having any sisters of his own, and being married to a very determinedly non-feminine feminist wife, he saw all the girlish aspects of me as "flibbertigibbet," and clearly longed for me to be more sober and steady than I was.  Looking at that now, I see it is that voice in me that demands that my time be spent productively, that sees art as a bit of a waste, that wants me -- if I AM going to create art -- to commit to some aspect of it instead of constantly chasing after new possibilities.  And can you see that all that means -- if I listen -- that I am never quite... enough. 

So it's both good that I set that voice aside for a while, and good that I can finally hear it again and identify its source; can choose to listen -- or not -- from a more conscious place inside, rather than allowing the constant undertones to undermine me without understanding its origins.

What I find particularly amusing this morning is that I created this image before I was reminded of my father -- and I remember thinking, as I was creating it, how odd it was, that the girl is so narrowly defined, and trapped, and the man, so sober and serious, guarding her (and is that protection, or keeping her from escaping?) is himself a bit of a fool...

Perhaps what I'm saying here is that we need to go through those disconnected periods, to create a little empty space in our lives from those negative voices, in order to gain a little perspective...

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dive deeper

Love is a madman,
working his wild schemes,
tearing off his clothes,
drinking poison, and now quietly
choosing annihilation...

There are love stories,
and there is obliteration into love.

you have been walking the ocean's edge,
holding up your robes to keep them dry.

you must dive deeper under,
a thousand times deeper.

-- Rumi

I'm thinking, this morning, that whatever we believe we know about ourselves, there is always more.  To unearth the voices, the sources of the constant chatter in our heads, the whispers of feelings barely sensed, we must "dive deeper under, a thousand times deeper..."

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Entering the forest


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

by David Wagoner
From the book "Traveling Light: Collected and New Poems"  
I want to thank my blogsister, Joyce Wycoff, for publishing this poem on her blog; I offer it here in gratitude for her friendship and as a blessing for Bill as he heads for the trees.  Welcome to the convergence zone; may you find wisdom in that forest...

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Art as prayer

This image came together this morning in response to a piece about Brazil's approval of the controversial Belo Monte Dam Project.  I get that damming a river is the least polluting way to generate power, but at the same time the thought of displacing between 30,000 and 40,000 indigenous peoples and flooding the Amazon basin seems unacceptable. 

... and here I'm adding a discovery that came to me as I was writing the poem after posting this (and realized that the image I'd worked on yesterday before reading about the dam was -- you guessed it, a dam.)  The discovery is this: that decisions like this, made by those in power, for largely economic reasons, almost always have a way of damming up vital resources, so that where once they were shared evenly, they're now divided unfairly, so that some have too much and others have too little...

So of course it was inevitable that I would read this morning, in Jean Bolen's Crones Don't Whine that women "become rebellious and radical as they grow older... fiercely compassionate when they are outraged at the suffering... of terrorized, abused, helpless and neglected people, whose plight is considered of little importance because they have no power or value in a world where greed and power over others rather than concern for others is the ruling principle... Women become radicalized through empathy."

And that's true: reading about the dam made me wonder, if only briefly, about going to Brazil and joining the fight to destroy the project.  I get that that's not feasible.  But what can we do when things like this happen "even after tens of thousands of letters and emails addressed to Brazil's president, which were ignored as were the more than 600,000 signatures?"

I don't have an answer, any more than I have an answer to any of the other horrific things that are going on in the world -- and there are lots of them; new horrors perpetrated daily.  There are days when it makes me feel really helpless -- and terribly guilty, both for not doing or caring more, and for the relative ease of my own life.  And I don't know what to do with those feelings -- but that's where faith and art come in.  I have to have faith that my prayers and concerns might somehow make a difference.  And art becomes a way of expressing those prayers and concerns.  Creating an image is a kind of prayer, and a kind of tonglen; a breathing in of the pain of the world, and a painting out of all the pieces of the picture that emerges...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Letting go

"Letting go of the need to be something, giving up the struggle to hold on to the old meanings that support identity, if only briefly, allows a clearing to open in the mind.  And this in turn reveals a basic intelligence and well-being, known as buddha-nature in the Buddhist tradition -- an essential clarity, transparency, and warmth intrinsic to human consciousness.  

This is not the neutral or scary emptiness that existentialism addresses, but a fullness of presence whose brightness and sharpness cuts through confusion, rationalization, projection, self-deception, and all the other tricks we play on ourselves."
-- John Wellman, Toward a Psychology of Awakening

I think the reason this quote resonated so with me this morning -- aside from the feeling words like clarity, transparency and warmth bring -- is that I've been able this week, now that I understand why conflict is so challenging for me, to explore the roots of several other related behavior patterns; those shoulds that operate just below consciousness and keep driving me into the future with this sense that I'm not "doing NOW correctly."

Seeing the patterns isn't the same as fixing them, of course -- that'll be the work of a lifetime -- but awareness of those compelling inner voices makes me doubly appreciate the peace that might be found if I can just get past the struggle; if I can release the compulsion, and the identity which now feels so constricting, and step into that cool clear sea of being...

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Balancing logos and gnosis

"The Greeks have two words for knowledge: logos and gnosis.  What can be learned through education and scientific inquiry is logos.  What can be known through intuitive feelings and spiritual or mystical experiences is gnosis.  Logos is rational, objective, logical, expressible in words or numbers, while gnosis is subjective, nonrational, nonverbal, feeling-tinged, expressible through poetry, images, metaphor and music, and is often unproveable by its very nature.  

Every sacred experience is subjective: the sense of oneness with the universe, or with divinity, a spiritual epiphany, a timeless moment infused with beauty, spiritual insight, and grace is gnosis.  Ineffable yet profoundly transformative -- these are soul experiences.  Trust what you know in your bones from experiences such as these."
  -- Jean Shinoda Bolen, Crones Don't Whine

Those of us who are familiar with this way of knowing -- through images and poetry, intuition and insight -- can sense the wholeness behind the linearity of words and numbers; can occasionally feel trapped, unable to acknowledge, express, or trust what we know to be true.

But it's also the case that our intuition sometimes plays us false, springing out of old patterns and expectations rather than from actual viable reality.  And so we need, as much as possible, the whole picture, the both/and, the structure and the color, stasis and movement, left and right brain, male and female, logos and gnosis, yin and yang...

We need, therefore, to be kind to the parts of us that hide behind the words and logic of experience; to invite them into awareness and pay attention to what they have to tell us; their stories are certain to add depth to the picture.  But that doesn't mean we abandon the framework of our lives -- we just open it up a bit, so we can see the depth and richness that lies within...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Father Reason

Father Reason

The universe is a form of divine law,
your reasonable father.

When you feel ungrateful to him,
the shapes of the world seem mean and ugly.

Make peace with that father, the elegant patterning,
and every experience will fill with immediacy.

Because I love this, I am never bored.
Beauty constantly wells up
like the noise of springwater in my ear.
Tree limbs rise and fall like ecstatic arms
Leaf sounds talk together like poets
making fresh metaphors.

The green felt cover slips;
we get a flash of the mirror underneath.

The conventional opinion of this poetry
is that it shows great optimism for the future.
But Father Reason says, No need to announce the future.

This now is it.  Your deepest need and desire
is satisfied by this moment's energy
here in your hand.

  -- Rumi

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On the origins of faith

I do apologize for stepping out of the spiritual realm and taking you along on a brief psycho-therapeutic journey, but ... well ... sometimes you can't do one without the other; Welwood, in fact, insists they're inseparable.

Anyway, further exploration into yesterday's dilemma has revealed some issues around loneliness and aloneness and going it alone that are both an integral aspect of growing up as an only child AND an integral part of my spiritual journey.  And those issues tend to surface around conflict.

We only children don't do conflict very well; I think it may be scarier for us than for the rest of the world, because our conflicts, when we're growing up, tend for the most part to be with our parents, people much larger and more powerful than we are.  Which means, if we do risk arguing or expressing anger, our punishment usually has to do with being left alone, sent to bed without our supper, or some variation on that theme.

Which, I suspect, has something to do with the origins of my faith: I have this sense that my awareness of God arose very early in life, as something to comfort me during times of abandonment.  There's more to it now, of course, but that, I think, is the root of my faith -- this sense of aloneness and abandonment, and the longing for someone to care for, feed, and comfort me.

Which, I suppose, turns it into a bit of a chicken and egg problem: did God appear in my life because God exists and watches over his/her children?  Or did I manufacture God as a way of coping?  I, of course, assume the former -- largely because that sense of Someone caring for me and walking with me has stayed with me over the years, sometimes as a felt sense and often in the form of surprising or startling coincidences. At this point, it almost doesn't matter if God pre-existed my longing; if that Source comes from without or within.  What matters is that faith exists, and sometimes surfaces, just as feelings of loneliness and abandonment exist and sometimes surface.  They're not always connected, but certainly some connection exists.

So, after exploring that for a bit this morning, it's intriguing to look more closely at this image that emerged yesterday afternoon.  It's a compilation of five separate images: one of city lights, two of the Seattle Center fountain, and two bar scenes.  So there's darkness, and loneliness -- two very separate individuals, each very much alone -- and, at the same time, lots of lights and a fountain.  And then there are those curious horses, galloping across the center stage, and that chemical overlay, which feels like something is draining out of the image...  And, oh, look -- isn't there a flag at half-mast up there?

Woof.  That's a lot going on.  But I think I'll just leave it at that, and not bother to interpret except to say I find hope in the balance of it, in the light and the colors, in the complexity of it and in the fountain.  Not everything has to be, or needs to be, or even will be resolved in one image, or in one argument, or in one therapy session or meditation.  Life's complicated, and yet the issues are often at heart very simple.  And I'm willing to live with that.

It's all good.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Lost in the jungle

I remember, when I was in my 20's, being told we humans only use about 2% of our brainpower.  I'm not quite certain how they arrived at that figure, or if that statement is still considered to be true.  But there are certainly days when it seems like my brain is some sort of impenetrable jungle, of which I only fully inhabit one very small corner; a cave, perhaps, or a hollow tree...

And if our own minds and motives are that challenging to decipher, how can we ever presume to understand someone else's mind or motives?  And yet often others' motives are far clearer and more obvious to us than our own, which tend to get shrouded in all kinds of protective camouflage...

I say this because ... well, just when I thought I had gotten comfortable with one resolution of a problem, it came up again and sent me off again into tizzy-land.  So clearly I haven't actually resolved things yet, I've just figured out another way to rationalize my behavior.

Sorry if that sounds a bit oblique.  But -- having read about some of the defense mechanisms we create for ourselves in Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening this morning, and then having watched myself waste an entire meditation session brooding over how to challenge someone else's view of the world -- well, I can see I still have work to do.

Here's what Welwood has to say about my efforts to get in touch with my deeper understanding of myself:  "Of course, it is often hard to let ourselves feel our pain and disconnection.  As soon as we start to look at it, a story comes up, a distracting belief, thougt, or fantasy.  As soon as we ask ourselves, "What is this?  Why am I feeling so bad?" our mind steps in and says, "Oh, I know what it is.  It's x or y.  It's my hang-up with my mother.  It's my inferiority complex.  It's nothing serious, nothing worth giving any energy to.  Everyone has problems like these, don't indulge them."  Such stories are a major obstacle to healing because they keep us separate from our experience, stuck in contraction and rejection."

Yup.  Got me.  Time to take another look at this, strip away some of the spanish moss and fuzz around this stuff, see if I can figure out what's REALLY going on.  Because if I'm still making up stories around this, I've not yet gotten to the root of it.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Giving Way to Wonder

So here's the thing about living on an island: if your daughter's plane doesn't arrive until 11pm,  there's no way you can make the 11:15 ferry.  Which means you sit, first in traffic (Seattle has TWO stadiums right by the ferry dock, and I think both games must have ended around 11:30 last night), and then in the ferry line until 12:45 (hey, if we had missed that ferry we'd be stuck until the 2:10!), so when you finally get to bed it's around 2 am.  Which is 5 am if you just flew in from the East Coast.  So we got off to a bit of a late start this morning -- and I missed church, though I had really intended to go.

The good news (other than that, well, yeah, we get to live on an island, and it's a beautiful day, and I have both my girls home!) is that I had the house to myself for a nice long while in the morning, so I had a longer meditation than usual, and, ohmigosh, I realized (listening to the birds and the waves with my newly returned daughter's ecstatic ears) that I hear in colors.

I know.  It sounds weird, and probably is; my older daughter actually wrote a paper about this in high school, when we realized letters had colors for both of us: it's a condition called synaesthesia, and involves a mixing, a sort of cross-pollination of the senses.  but I'm not sure I've ever noticed before that sound, for me, is really (obviously somewhere below normal attention) a constant parade of shapes and colors.

Why this matters today is connected to that realization in the ferry line that I wrote of yesterday, and somehow related to two passages I read this morning in Welwood's Toward a Psychology of Awakening:

"The fix-it mentality only really works on the gross outer level of things.  When trying to repair a car or a pipe in the kitchen sink, it is appropriate to take a wrench and exert pressure against the hardened rust to get the nut to turn.  But approaching an inner problem in this way usually has the opposite effect, causing the problem to seize up all the more.  This is because the part of us we are trying to fix feels unacceptable or rejected, and therefore tightens up."

and then this: "Why is it so hard to just let our experience be what it is?  Why are we so uncomfortable with it?  What is this uneasiness we feel in relation to our own feelings and states of mind? The nature of our dis-ease is this: we continually judge, reject, and turn away from certain areas of our experience that cause us discomfort, pain, or anxiety.  This inner struggle keeps us inwardly divided, creating pressure and stress and cutting us off from the totality of who we are."

So -- after the release and acceptance I felt yesterday in acknowledging the inner conflict between who I am and who I think I'm supposed to be, today I just decided to relax into the space that created and see what rose up.  Which is when I realized (yes, this could have been me distracting myself!) that the sounds of the morning -- the refrigerator, the birds, the waves, my neighbor taking his boat out -- all have colors, and paint themselves across the surface of my mind, which becomes an ever-changing canvas.

Here I've been spending this time looking for images that have shapes I can paint into (like the one you saw yesterday), when, in fact, the shapes are already there, constantly shifting across the landscape of my mind as I listen.  So then I thought, ooh, what if I use existing pictures as a palette, and paint to music?  Doesn't that sound like fun?  Now, if I can only let go of the tendency to realism and just allow the shapes to emerge; doesn't that seem like a way to open access to parts of experience that may be lying dormant in me?  And then, because a picture needs both light and dark, I could invite my darker feelings to voice themselves, and wouldn't that ultimately mean that the picture that is my life might be more balanced?

Yes -- I know, I'm mixing metaphors here.  And this is probably pretty woo-woo.  But there's confusion and wonder here, which makes me think immediately of Logion Two in the Gospel of Thomas:

Yeshua says...

If you are searching, you must not stop until you find.
When you find, however, you will become troubled.
Your confusion will give way to wonder.
In wonder you will reign over all things.
Your sovereignty will be your rest.

I think it's important to stay with the process: to keep exploring, even when things seem odd or strange or scary; to "lean into it," as Pema Chodron says, so we can feel that giving way to wonder...

Somehow this seems like the perfect moment to share a wonderful poem sent to me by one of my readers: (Thank you, Spencer):


In the back’s low hollow sometimes
a weightless hand guides me, gentle pressure
so I tack soft as a sailboat. (Go there)

Soften the space between your eyes (smudge
of eucalyptus), the third eye
opens. There’s the wide vermilion sky

that cradled us before birth,
and the sun pours its golden sap
to preserve me like His precious insect.

-- Mary Karr in "Sinners Welcome"

Enough, now; I shall go make waffles, and see what the day brings...

Saturday, June 4, 2011

I don't walk on water

Yesterday was my last class at Antioch; one more paper and I'll be done -- hurray!  Not that school hasn't been lovely, or an incredible learning experience, but it will be a pleasure to have my free time back.  And -- of course -- there's the fact that learning experiences by definition can be challenging, though not necessarily in the ways we expect.  Yesterday, for example, I felt this surge of frustration at one point, and it looked like I was going to have to say something to the person who I felt was creating the problem for me.

Fortunately the moment passed, and I didn't have to end my day with an angry confrontation, but there was enough emotion around it that I thought later, sitting in the ferry line with nothing else to do, that it might be good to take a closer look.  And when I did, taking the time to get to the root of all those surging feelings, I realized (surprise, surprise!) that she wasn't the problem at all: I was.

The clarity I found can be traced directly to something I read yesterday in A.H. Almaas's book, Elements of the Real:
"When we are children, the functions of nourishment, care, protection, release of tension, and comfort are provided by the parents -- particularly by the mother... As the personality of the child develops, the child becomes more independent of the mother, but this is accomplished by introjecting the mother, recreating her inside.

...The mother inside you is not a physical thing; you have her emotionally in your unconscious.  You behave like her, and you seek out people like her.  You feel the way she felt, or you find people who treat you the way she treated you...  Even those who deny they want mother ... continue to unconsciously seek the negative mother while consciously feeling the opposite.

... Even when you are by yourself... you are still relating to your mother -- the mother inside you.  You relate to your superego which is always beating you up.  Why is your superego beating you up?  Because it makes you feel that your mother is around.  When you were a child, your mother was always judging you.  So every time you feel like a little kid, your internal mother comes and beats you up.  Then you feel secure.  You might complain, but you feel secure."

The person I resented was only blocking me from being something my mother wanted me to be.  And I had been allowing her to do that because my true self didn't see a need to be that something -- and then my internal mother was disappointed in me for not being that, so she was beating up on me.  Which means -- like any other child under attack -- I pointed the blame finger outside.

I know; it's complicated.  But I can't begin to tell you how freeing this realization was -- and how grateful I am that  I didn't "speak my truth" (or what I thought was the truth in the moment).  Add to that the fact that my learnings confirmed something I've suspected for some time now, and set me free of yet another "should" I've been carrying around... well, I'm feeling pretty light-hearted this morning!  Of course it helps that the sun is finally out, the weather is finally warming up, and my daughter will be home tonight for the first time since February...

So yay!  Life is good!  Hope you're having a good day, too.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Everything belongs

"How much more simply life could evolve if we'd but focus our attention on the obvious situation confronting us, looking always for our direction from within the situation's elements.  How little point there is in worrying about what may come, and yet we expend incalculable amounts of energy in just such activity. "
  -- The Promise of a New Day

"It is a dualistic fixation, the tension between 'me' -- as self -- and 'my thoughts' -- as other -- that makes thinking problematic, tormenting, 'sticky,' like the tar baby to which Brer Rabbit becomes affixed by trying to push it away.  Thoughts become thick, solid, and heavy only when we react to them."  --Welwood,  Toward a Psychology of Awakening

For some reason these quotes, which I read this morning, seemed related to this image, which I've been struggling with for two days now.  There was this huge yellow-green mass on the right, and I kept trying to push it out of the picture -- kind of the elephant-in-the-living-room sort of a feeling.  But in the end, when I decided to give up and take it with me into an earlier version of the image, it turned out there was a lot less of it than I thought; I'd created it with some sort of overlay somewhere in the process, and all it did was add some drama.

So I like to think the black streaks -- those tarbaby bits -- are embracing and accepting that problematic piece, which is another bit of advice from today's reading in Promise of a New Day:

"Everything in the world has something to say to us: rocks, garbage, even our disappointments and failures.  For everything belongs to the vast pulsating pattern that is the earth.  Nothing that exists does not belong; if we find this or that piece of the pattern troublesome, it's because we haven't perceived its contribution to the whole..."

So -- what's troubling you today?  What are you worrying about; what are you pushing away?  What does that troublesome thought have to offer you -- and how can you embrace it?

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Art as evangelism

"Without its tail, the kite would fly off in the lightest breeze.  The tail serves as a rudder, to steady the kite and allow it to be directed.  Every force needs a counter-force to channel it effectively...

Our minds and our bodies aren't two different things.  They're made of the same stuff.  They make up one being.  We can never say where one leaves off and the other begins, nor can we say that one weighs down the other.

We can say, though, that we contain within ourselves all sorts of contradictions, checks, and counter-forces.  This makes life interesting.  Looked at positively, it means that we can understand any human possibility because we contain them all."

This is actually yesterday's reading from The Promise of a New Day, but, given that I spent some time this morning counterbalancing the birds in this image, it seemed somehow relevant.

So much of this work (I know: to you painters this is old hat, but for a photographer the challenge of building an image of parts is definitely new territory) is about responses and awareness.  When I completed this one yesterday, there was only one vertical bar, and the two birds on the right were facing the same way.

But when I came to it this morning, that felt unbalanced, and the large bird on the right was too close to the edge, so I just kept moving things around (that's the luxury of doing this on the computer -- so many opportunities to undo and redo) until it "felt right." But what does "felt right" mean?  And what does it feel like?

That's where meditation comes in handy: if I take the time to just sit, to watch what rises up -- where it takes me, how it feels, how it resolves, how it shifts -- then over time there emerges a subtle awareness of balance; moments when all the different "contradictions, checks, and counter-forces" have a sort of equal claim on attention, and there's this openness and acceptance that arises to both hold them all and be them all, so the distinctions between them are lost. 

And though I don't think about it at the time, looking at it objectively after the fact I can see the authors of this piece are right: the dissolution of those internal distinctions allows me to comprehend the dissolution of external distinctions as well.  Which doesn't mean I'm good at that -- it just means I can imagine another way of being in the world that embraces more of the" contradictions, checks, and counter-forces" that fly into awareness; that understands their importance and value to the total picture.

So if I know that feeling -- however briefly -- inside myself, and can imagine it outside myself, then the image becomes an intermediary; a place to both practice finding balance and to proclaim its possibility.

Hmm.  Art as evangelism -- but for faith, and hope (that oneness and acceptance and balance are achievable), rather than for a specific religious stance or story.

I like it!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

From "sorry" to "thank you"

We've all heard it said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  But a gallery owner once said -- when I expressed reservations about a technique I was using at the time -- "You know the difference between amateurs and professionals, don't you?  Amateurs borrow ideas from other artists.  Professionals steal them."

It was good for a laugh, I guess, but it definitely made me uncomfortable.  And I mention it today because I spent a lot of time on this image yesterday.  It actually started life as a painting in a gallery, and I really really liked it.  So I took a picture.

Looking at the picture later, it occurred to me that it would be fun to substitute my own textures and colors for the blocks of color in the painting.  So I did that, and I really liked the results.  But it still seemed to have the composition of the original painting.  So I tried changing that.  I tried rotating it and flipping it, but it still worked best in this configuration.

I tried lengthening it, I tried squashing it, I tried warping it... and still, this was the way it looked best.  So I thinned some black lines and thickened others, overlaid an image of cracks on mud and called it a day.  So here it is, and I really do like it a lot -- especially the colors and textures.  But the incontrovertible fact is that the composition isn't mine.  And for me, it's really the composition that makes the image.  So, in a way, this picture feels like a violation of a trust.  And I don't even know the original artist's name.

What I do know, though, is that that's a method of teaching, used both in art and in writing.  You have the student copy a great master, on the theory that they learn style and technique and that serves to inform the development of their own style and technique.  So what did I learn from this?  That I really like the strong contrast of the black sections.  That I'm still hooked on the Rule of Thirds.  And that I can take textures and colors from one work, place them in another, and get depth by changing the shading.

So it's all good -- but I still feel like I should apologize to the artist.  And that reminds me of an important lesson I learned a couple of years ago: if you're the sort of person (and I am) who says "I'm sorry" WAY too often, so much so that your family starts objecting, learn to rephrase it.  Next time you catch yourself in the act of apologizing, try saying "Thank you" instead.  Not "I'm sorry I'm late," but "Thank you for waiting."  Changing the statement has a way of evening out the playing field.

So as one artist to another, even though I don't know his or her name, I will just say, "Thank you for sharing your beautiful composition with me."