Archive for January, 2010

I am years behind on reading. In the past few weeks, I have shifted from writing as meditation to reading as meditation. The shift is showing in the number of posts. Anyway, in the past week I have read The History of Love by Nicole Krause and Panther in the Basement by Amoz Oz. The week before I read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Today I started Midnight’s Children by Salmon Rushdie.

All of these books use beautiful, lyric language to shift the reader into an altered state, a meditative state.  Then they set up a pattern, then on top of this pattern they unwind the plot. We see the pattern and trust that they will tell the full story. We have a contract that we can relax into. We are comfortable and can then fully focus on their words and the sensations their words trigger in our bodies. Oz and McCarthy complete this contract flawlessly. I am assuming Rushdie will do the same. Krause comes close, but she muddles up the plot a bit in the middle, so I got a bit confused and was kicked out of the experience a few times. No matter, like any meditation, I gently brought my mind back and continued.

Krause’s book was still worth it, but I got to thinking about those writers/teachers/speakers/guided mediation instructors who know how to create a beginning middle and end to a guided, focused experience. How they know how to set up a pattern that engenders trust then use it lead us into places deep within ourselves. How when it is done well, we leave with a part of us cleared, a part of us expanded, a part of us centered. We don’t know how they did it. We just know that we are changed.


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Meditation is all about gently bringing the mind back when it wanders, then bringing it back again, then bringing it back again, like training a puppy they say. Guiding. Gently guiding when the inevitable wandering happens. Then you just guide. Guide oneself, guide another with kindness, with compassion. Every moment is a new opportunity, like being born again they say. The opportunity to completely start over.

Over the past six days I took notes about different arcs: feeling well again, feeling sick again, feeling like I belonged and was loved, feeling terrified about failing with money and not having the right insurance, feeling frustrated with a stranger only because I was angry at myself. Every subject was one that I have worn through before, and before, and before.

I just threw all the notes out. I am not in the mood to relive. I just want to recognize that I wandered from this 200-day, 200-post project, and I am gently guiding myself back. Like in meditation, when returning one’s focus, it is still success if the focus is short. Maybe sit only for three minutes. Baby steps. In returning to posting, this post can be a baby post. It can be short. It can be simple. There does not need to multiple characters and situations and layers. It does not need to be profound or poetic. It just needs to be. Just get back on the bike and ride. Just get back on the mat and sit. Just write.

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Daniel Pink was on the radio. Daniel is an exceptionally smart guy who has proven that he can distill individual and sociological patterns into incredibly useful factions and checklists. He has written a new book on what motivates individuals. The book is called Drive. In Drive, he identifies the three elements that are in play when we are truly motivated:

  • Autonomy—desire to be self directed
  • Mastery–desire to get better and better at something that matters
  • Purpose—desire to be part of something larger than ourselves

As he unveiled each of his elements, my mind kept jumping to how it related to meditation and art (the same thing for me).

If one is a practiced meditator or artist, the autonomy piece is a given. Neither of these are practices that are directed by a boss, encouraged by a professor, or required by the tax man. In fact, if you are trying to meditate or produce art in the United States, without self direction, you got nothing. Anyone waiting to be led to water, well they are just going to be thirsty.

It was when he talked about the mastery piece, that I had an ah-ha, and he got me thinking. Through my radio, he told me that I was spending thousands of hours on writing and meditation because it is motivating for me to watch how I am slowly getting better at these things. His idea reminded me that the reason I go to meditation retreats is that months after every retreat ends, I notice that I have just handled a sticky or emotionally difficult situation differently. He reminded me that when I pull something out of the writing archives, I always need to edit the piece, because no matter if it worked before or not, I am now a slightly better writer. And it got me to thinking, when is slowly getting better enough? And when is it not enough?

Over the years I have had a number of people tell me that of course, I was writing for myself. Something about their statement seemed wrong, yet it seemed arrogant or fame-seeking to say their assumptions were untrue. But where was it false? I could not put my finger on exactly what was wrong.

Well thank you Daniel, I now know that the third important piece of being and staying motivated is the desire to be part of something larger than ourselves. I think this is where our culture gets all goofed up in the fame thing. It isn’t about fame; it is about real opportunity and feedback that gives the possibility of increasing autonomy and mastery. It is about succeeding in saying something that resonates with other people, other people who say, “Yes, I recognize that idea.” It is about true peers, about community, about sangha, about conversation.

Thank you Daniel for your interview on the radio. And although I tried to see you at the bookstore on Monday night, a storm in Oregon kept you from arriving. It is OK, for as I wandered around the shopping center wondering why I was there, I heard my name called, even though there was a question mark in her voice. It was Bridget. I had not seen her in five years. I like her so much, and although she is strong, I was sorry to hear of her trial with breast cancer. I wish her the best. Bless her and all of us beings who need to be cared for, the body’s way of reminding us that we need to be part of something larger than ourselves. Namaste.

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Sickness was getting worse, so I succumbed to taking antibiotics. All is getting better, but in order to post and get the year end accounting done, I pulled something from the archives:

Meditation Bugs

It is September, and for two days now, I have been dodging and swatting legions of large, greenish-black, beetle-looking bugs that have been hurtling themselves from every direction. Each bug is shiny, slightly more than an inch long, and has wings that stretch the length of a body solid enough to create a thwapping sound when it hits my head. I don’t know whether or not this jumping and crashing is part of the propagation ritual that they fit into a life that is counted in hours instead of years, but I continually swat as the chaotic jumpers leap in their last free-for-all breath before, one by one, each bug falls to the stone floor of the covered courtyard and dies.

It is 5:10 am. One man who must have been awake before the 5 am bell, has taken it upon himself to sweep the remnants of last night’s deceased into a pile in the center of the courtyard. I cross the courtyard to the tea table. I had left my mug right side up on the tea table overnight. I walk back across the courtyard and dump the bug carcasses from the mug to onto the pile.

Today I am day manager of a 60-person 10-day silent meditation retreat. I am up early to complete my management duties. On the top of the large white board outside the meditation hall I write the chant that we will use at 5:30, Om mani padme hum: the jewel in the lotus, I put my shoes next to the door and walk into the meditation hall.

Thirty minutes later, when I exit the hall, someone has written a message on the board. Is someone killing the bugs?

At the beginning of the retreat, each retreatant receives information that includes the following paragraph.  Noble silence is for the benefit of all retreatants and helps to direct our attention inward. If you wish to send a note to retreatants, ask yourself if it is truly a necessary communication or whether it can wait until the end of the retreat. The instructions go on to say that notes can be left for the staff on the staff message board. No where does it say that it is OK to ask questions or make pronouncements on the white board.

When managing a silent retreat there are always choices on when to impart information and when to stay silent. Silence gives the option to promote trust. Silence leaves open the possibility that all people may not know all options or potential outcomes at all times. If this philosophy brings up discomfort, the retreatants are supposed to remember to recycle their reactions. When you recycle your reactions, you notice how you are responding to stimuli. Is a story running loudly and wildly through your head? Do you have a rising or heavy feeling in your chest? If you have a reaction, watch it. Watch it expand or contract. Do not act on what the story may be telling you. Do not try to relieve discomfort by distracting yourself with movement. Recycling your reactions is a simple way of saying that you are here to meditate, both on the cushion and off. You are here to discover how your reactions may be controlling you. Allow the reaction to run through you. Allow it to end.

I read the message again and decide that the anonymous person can recycle his or her reactions. I erase the question and write the daily schedule on the board.

Throughout the day, the concern for the doomed bugs escalates. Somehow the story has spread that someone was killing the bugs with pesticides. In black, green, blue and red, the comments on the white board have exploded, Stop poisoning the bugs! Remember that the bugs are also sentient beings. Someone wanted to capture and move the bugs. The comments were written in every size, at every angle, and with expressive degrees of punctuation and underlines. Clearly these people were not recycling. 

I take the dry eraser and erase the messages. I write, We are not killing the bugs, they are dying naturally in their own life cycle. This is all the conversation in which I am willing to engage. I notice my shoulders releasing and the congestion in my chest dissolving now that I believe the anxiety will dissipate. I have reacted. The others can react as they see fit. If they need more, we can talk about it in four days.

As people file into the meditation hall for the last sit before dinner, I watch people read the board. One man looks relieved. A woman glances quickly around as if to speak to someone, then turns and reads the board again. Two women catch each other’s eye and hold a silent conversation in a second. Many don’t visibly react at all.

The bugs are dead, the thoughts about the bugs are dying, the time spent worrying about what other people may be doing is gone, and any heightened feeling about unrighteousness is unwinding in our bodies. My anxiety about what to say and not to say has only residual sensations in my chest. Hopefully we are learning.

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Caretaking as meditation

My sister has the flu, could not breathe, and got scared. I packed up and went to stay with her for the day and night. When we are in someone else’s space, nothing is automatic. Thought is required to find a pan, a spatchula, a knife, a plastic bag, a paper towel. I can become restless when I have to spend energy on things that would be automatic in my own space. At the same time, I am freed from the long list of options and expectations that I have for myself when I am in my own space. Being in someone else’s space is like being on retreat. Everything is pretty much there and taken care of, but each action is brought into consciousness because it is out of pattern or brand. So just watch what arises—joy, freedom, frustration, loss. 

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I have a big, thick, white, cotton robe with cuffed sleeves that hang past my hands and drag in toast and coffee and chicken soup and tacos. I often spill coffee on its deep shawl collar. During the long nights of mid-winter, the robe gets alot of wear. In an effort to boost recovery from this lingering and recurring flu, I washed the now fluffy robe, took a hot, hot bath in epsom salts, pulled the warm robe from the dryer, and am now wrapped in its clean healing comfort. I can feel its softness on my legs, arms, neck, the backs of my hands.

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Art and merging

I love art. Visual, written, sound, texture. Often I know something is art after I realize that I have merged with it. I use that lack-of-boundry feeling as a litmus test. Somehow when something is so perfectly done, the artist succeeds in removing the barrier between an emotional state and the viewer. How do they do that? 

I first heard the term merging in relation to meditation at a mediation retreat. The meditation teacher said that merging “is a sustained and systematic apparatus designed to permanently increase your base level of concentration, sensory clarity and equanimity.”

The is an exhibit from the Louvre that closes today. Although I tried to get there earlier in the week, illness and a dead car battery kept me from my intended viewing. So I wound up at the exhibit on the weekend, when they let people in every 15 minutes instead of every 30. It was crowded. My usual strategy of starting with the end of an exhibit and moving backwards to avoid the crush did not work. The 2:15 pm crush was still in the center and end of the exhibit, along with the large special tour.

I returned to the first room. It was almost filled by the 4 1/2 x 6 foot  Lion with Serpent bronze. Everone else was past it. Their headphone tours had led them to the Astronomer and a DaVindi drawing in the next room. I stood staring at the lion. It was perfect. Smooth. Brown. Bronze. Muscular. Pouncing on the serpent. We stood there together. For at least three minutes. Then I went on.

Antoine-Louis Barye (Paris, 1795-1875)
Lion and Serpent
Lion of the Tuileries
Commissioned for the Tuileries Gardens, where it stood from 1836 to 1911
H. 135 cm; W. 178 cm; D. 96 cm

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