Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Winter Writing

Words! Words have come back to me, marching foreword, onward, with a mission! Determinedly. Demandingly. Commanding my attention. It's as if the tiny slice of time that I have between now and next semester has opened up a flood gate I've been thirsting after for years. All at once. Here and now.

Is it because she has been there, pounding at the door, herself? Calling out to the muse, wringing it out of her, preciously, painstakingly?

I notice that a part of me has grown up. I want to read everything I can get my eyes on. I want to study the craft from the crafters themselves. I want to listen. I want to consider. I never had this desire before. I only wanted to talk. I only wanted to chatter, compose, create, communicate. The one-way street has become the two-way.

I read Didion's latest book and skipped over the recommended Magical Thinking predecessor. I haven't the gumption for weak endings. Blue Nights is no weak ending. I could see it rising somewhere in the middle, about half way through. What I thought it was about, what I'd been told it was about, was not at all what it was about. It's an existential think-piece. She's asking, and yet not quite asking, the proverbial question that's been asked again and again since the beginning. It's about our own personal relationship with impermanence, change.... Death. Our death. Mine. Yours. The elusive way in which we deny it, cover our eyes, stick our heads in the sand. But the covers we erect over this disturbing truth, the reality of our lives, eventually dissolves. We are left with only the simple, plain fact -- and the task of acceptance.

There's something about Didion's writing -- her voice, her style -- that strikes a deep cord of familiarity. As I read her words it's as if I can hear my Grandmother's voice reading to me. It's as if she, not Didion, had written this memoire. I felt suddenly close to her again, admiring her matter-of-factness, her tactful grammer, her flawless poise. Images of Gramma walking away from me, when she didn't know I was watching, her shoulders perfectly rolled back, her spine straight, her gait sensual and sexy (even at 70!), flash across my memory. Her elegance ever striking. It could take your breath away.

I find myself wanting to invent this word: Deloquarious. I don't even know what it would mean, but it would somehow describe this writer's voice.


Poetic preludes keep entering my thoughts. I take a drive down our street to Jessica's house. I pass the converted funeral home with a lawn full of black birds. Hundreds of them. Pecking away at the ground. I look out the window smiling excitedly and let out a "HA!" alone in my car. Imagening them as my audience I throw out a few playful words. "The black birds taking in their winter feast. Winter starlings feasting. Winter birds feasting on the prize of Autumn's left overs." Reinventing lines. Turning them over. Examining their edges. Rotating them through the kaleidoscope of my mind. 

The day got away from me before it even began. It's been the oddest time sheet on record. I woke and did yoga. Rita called and we spoke. It was suddenly five o'clock, so we had dinner. Hadn't I only just awoken?

I think of Didion's book again, and fear I'm marching blindly towards my own death, letting minutes and moments I'll never have again leap off my page and take a nose-dive into the past.

Am I awake?

I lower into plank pose. I slither into snake pose. I bend and fold and push into downward dog. I inhale the foot forward and move to bring the body back into standing and it all takes a heavier sigh than I have ever known. The entire body -- my entire body -- felt in that split second, radically old. I've never felt that before. The tightening. The slowing down. The creak and crack and crumble of my bones, with nothing springy between them restless to move again.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mother Rita

Two beautiful foreheads pressed together,
we make a canopy of our steepled arms
and place our love here.
Palm to palm.
Fingers interlaced and hooked in rapture.

Hard knuckles of white against white,
we cling to this brittle branch of dreaming
where, for a hollow moment,
I hold you in the whole of me.

Was it the hungry cub, pawing out for its mother's milk
which woke me --
Startled beneath the quick blanket
that jerked the wind from my lungs?

It was then that I first saw you, Great Mother.
Oh how the rounds of your eyes
were so brown! As dark as the wet forest trunk
is heavy,
with earth's ancient groaning.

I found you on your bathroom floor
and fell to my knees
at the cords of your robe.

You were a shrine. My shrine!
Crumpled up on the cold square tiles.
A precious stone burnished over time --

One part coal and one part diamond.
Riddled with the disease
which snakes its way up your sternum,
and sinks its pointed teeth deep into your spine.

This is you, and you are not a dream!
we cry and coo.
Twittering as the doves do
on your back porch stoop.

I press the top of your head with my lips, feeling
your soft hair, wrapping
myself up in your juniper scent,
my wet tears pounding you with kisses.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Seeing the Light

I made pumpkin bread and pumpkin muffins this morning.

I loved how the light was hitting them through the kitchen window... they look like holy golden muffins. I wouldn't say they tasted quite as heavenly as I would've liked. I balked at the recipe calling for 2.5 cups of sugar when I was only using 3.5 cups of flour, so I took out half a cup... much to the disappointment of the muffins. They also lacked the moisture I would have preferred. Note to self and others: don't apt for the shortcut of canned pumpkin, just go for the real thing.

I attempted to save them by making a cinnamon and suger glaze with butter and cream. All in all? They were, just, okay. I brought them down to Carollton and shared them with the hospice patients and hospice staff.

I was finally able to get a nice, long, 45 minute meditation sit in last night. I'm looking forward to a longer one this evening. I'm still trying to ferret out what makes for the really awesome sit and what stifles or obscures a sit. Last night I found concentration to come quite naturally and easily. As I entered deeper and deeper into the breath I began to notice something peculiar taking shape. Whether it's an act of my imagination, or the "sign" Bhante G talks about in his book, I'm still not sure. It was incredibly encouraging, though! I began to sense being at a doorway. It had real shape to it, and sort of pointed up at the top. I felt the doorway surrounding me a little, like a bubble. I sat in this doorway for a few minutes, minutes which I knew wouldn't last because I had already begun to ponder the experience and think about it, rather than be in it. That's a tricky balance to manage...

I remember when I had my very first meditative absorption. It was back in Iowa on my 21st birthday in a zen monastery. When I entered absorption there was a distinct "popping" sensation, like bursting through or popping your finger through plastic. There was a domed light surrounding me and the color of dark army green. I have no idea what these things mean, but they were present and experienced on some level that was neither just in my mind nor outside of it.

The recent dhamma talk posted yesterday was also encouraging. I was reminded that, though we accumulate bad kamma through our actions, we also create good kamma too. And this good kamma builds and builds. When we sit for meditation, each time we do, it's building good kamma. Eventually, we must enter the jhanas. It's simply bound to happen, like filling a pitcher of water. Eventually, the water will spill over. I'm hoping that the doorway is a sign, a symbol, that I'm building that kamma and coming closer to the first real step inward.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Autumn and All Things Good

I can't sing the praises of this salad enough. Wow. Just, wow! Roasted delicata squash and fingerling potatoes, fresh kale, pepitas, radish, and a delectable handmade miso-harissa dressing. Well, I had to do a little improv for the harissa, which is one very elusive sauce to find. I've searched far and wide without any luck, until I realized I needn't search at all... it can be made in my very own kitchen! Of course, who has the time to put it together at quarter after six, staring at 50 pages of research needing to be read and analyzed for a grant proposal whose deadline is looming? Yea, me neither.

Chili oil can go a long way.

To balance out the citrus and spice in the salad, I also made a sweet corn soup finished off with yogurt and dill. I was unfortunately too full to eat this bowlfull after finishing off a plate of the delicata salad, but the husband had no problem polishing off both! Men... I wish I had half their metabolism!

What are some of your favorite autumn foods?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Getting Stuck on the Way Up

[Cleveland, our 6 month old kitten, takes a look out the window with his butt stuck in the blinds]

It's been a month since I've last written. I have only one excuse: school.

School has been amazingly busy this semester. It's no help that I also signed myself up for the impossible: four classes, practicum, research assistantship, working weekends, hour-long commutes. Needless to say, I dropped a class to keep my nose above the water line.

Even with the recent dropping of some of the load, it hasn't come without its consequences. In the month struggle my stress and anxiety levels went through the roof, I had an emotional breakdown, upped my intake of wine, and the meditation practice almost completely fell out of each day. I watched my sits go from nearly two hours a day, down to one, down to thirty minutes, down to thirty minutes every other day, and finally, twenty minutes once in seven days. I'm reminded of the story Phakchok Rinpoche told me about his experiment with the 'ordinary' life, in which he gave up meditating for an entire week. At first he didn't notice much difference, maybe he lost his temper once in a while. But by the end of his experiment he had become extremely stressed, angry often, loosing his temper frequently, in a constant hurry to go places and do things. "It was just awful," he said, shaking his head. He was amazed that people could function at some level -- albeit with varying degrees of insanity -- without the practice in their lives.

My month-long slope down hill felt very much like his experience. I'm trying hard to turn the boat around, but the current that has built up against me in the meantime has grown quite strong. There's a lot of resistance I have to work against just to get myself back to where I was on the path. It's not just the loss of concentration ability in formal sitting that's difficult to regain. It's more about the memories of various heedless moments I've had -- broken precepts, poor virtue -- that weighs me down. A careless lie, a mean word, one glass of wine too many... these things hurt the faith in ourselves necessary to push on.

I have an overwhelming urge to sit perfectly still, not doing a thing, but it's a real illusion of stillness that is actually lack of energy and motivation. I'm sitting still anyway, in order to try and slow it all back down. An hour's sit this morning and an hour's sit last night, listening to a few deeply meaningful dhamma talks, may help realign the focus.

I'm finding a little bit of inspiration in this picture of Cleveland from this morning. Even though his bottom half is tangled up and stuck in the blinds, he's still reaching for the perfect view.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Patience + Perseverence

I've been working a lot lately with two of the thirtyseven factors of enlightenment, as they're called. Patience and Perseverence.

Back in July, when I was at the monastery, Sayalay recommended two hours a day of meditation based on my "constitution." Since then I've been working my way up to that, but it is hard to (a) find the time and (b) keep my butt on the cushion for that long. What I've found is that she's right -- I do need two hours. Have I met that goal yet in one sitting? No. Well, not yet at least. I'm coming close. I'm clocking in just at an hour, sometimes a little more.

But it takes a while to get to that quiet, still place. For the first twenty, thirty, even forty minutes of a sit, it's like battling the wind uphill, to wade through the thick current of the mind to a place where there's a clearing. It takes a great deal of perseverence and patience to keep with it, to keep going, in spite of sloth, in spite of restlessness.

What works the best? For me, I have found that beginning with the feeling of love in the heart works best. It provides a sense of joy, calm, and well-being. It also provides a terrific amount of easily-accessible energy and stamina. For instance, tonight I began my sit focused on Rita. I thought about her, about her pain, and I just began feeling love for her in my heart. I let it swell and build, I breathed it out, invisioned it surrounding her, soothing her, healing her broken sternum, easing her seizing muscles. Whenever the mind began to wander it was so easy to bring it back to the object of love and compassion, because it's for someone whom I feel so strongly. Thus, there was a tremendous wealth of energy to keep going, and an easier advantage of staying on the meditative object.

After some time of this, I turned my attention to the breath. The breath came more and more into focus until it seemed as though I was the breath, and the breath was me. There was nothing other than the breath coming in and the breath going out. The whole of me moved with its movement, with an intensity that only the present moment can unveil. I began to approach the edge of something much deeper than I've seen or been to... I wanted to follow this deepening further, but it's still new to me and so I wasn't able to sustain it for much longer.

I've also begun to understand, by way of experiencing, the teaching that virtue is one of the main foundations upon which meditation and concentration rests. Virtue must be something which is constantly cultivated in every moment. Some talk about it as "taking care of the moment." When there is any sort of disturbance within -- such as anger, impatience, aggression, etc -- at any point throughout the day, it creates a rift, a ripple effect if you will, that reverberates into one's meditation time. Imagine yourself to be like a pool of water. Negative emotions are like throwing stones at the pool. The bigger the stone, the bigger and longer the ripple will impact your ability to be calm and smooth inside.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Seeds of Change

We finally had our belated honeymoon, a trip we nearly put off doing all together because of financial considerations. I'm grateful we didn't let money concerns stop us. We discovered a world of adventure together, learned how to rely on one another, trust one another, guide one another. A gentle quietness grew in us that gave way to a terrific, much needed calm and peacefulness.

The hikes were arduous, climbing over 2,000 feet nearly straight up the side of bare-backed mountains covered in nettle, sage, fennel, wild flowers, and camomile. We traveled over 30 miles with packs on our backs and blisters on our gritty feet.

I often spent the afternoon tracking up the mountain sides in search of wild camomile, making careful clippings and plucking the tissue-soft buds from their stems.

Often our paths were lined with field after field of wild flowers and herbs, filling our noses with the smell of god's great garden.

Some mornings the mist from the sea would fill the mountain crevices, blanketing everything in a cool fog. It was eerie and beautiful and full of such moving silence...

By mid-afternoon the fog would break free and the skies opened up to a glorious, crisp view of the ragged ocean far below. Much of the sea gave off an intense aqua color because of all of the gorgeous green serpentine rock.

By late afternoon fog could be seen gathering again like smoke rising from the sea towards the mountains, reminding us of the all too recent wildfires that swept through the ancient Ventana -- a site just 20 miles from the Tassajara, where a group of zen monks gaurded their forest monastery against the flames that claimed so much in 2006.

The trip was a remarkable journey. I united with my best friend, soul-mother, Rita. For fifteen years we have held between us an indescribably close relationship. Spiritual and profound, meaningful and prophetic, even rescuing at times... all built over countless letters, emails, and occasional phone conversations. Seeing her for the first time brought me to my knees, literally. I cried and kissed her head and listened to her for hours upon hours. I breathed her in and felt so much love flowing between us. Our presence together had a magical, healing effect -- not only for her, but for me as well.

I also really enjoyed meditating deep in the redwood valleys, or perched at the edge of a mountain overlooking valleys and ocean. We had the great fortune of hiking through Big Sur while the full moon grew in the sky, reaching her peak on our third day in, and waning as we made our way back out of the forest. The way her light illuminates the forest and the mountains fills me with awe and amazement. It is so much easier to become concentrated and quiet in the deep of the forest. It is much harder returning to the city with the trains and the traffic and the demands of home and work.

Nonetheless, we pick up where we left off. The new semester has begun. I'll be volunteering with hospice starting next week. Already the inner-workings of the psychology program have begun to fill my mind with introspection and reflection. Last night I worked on my personal loss history for psychology of loss. Creating such a heavy inventory brought a lot of 'ah-ha' moments as connections became clearer between life-moments of growth and regression. To look back and see this tangled string of losses and how they steered who I was to become from day to day, life to life, I'm finding a new sense of self-compassion and forgiveness. I am also seeing how every person I come into contact with has such losses in their histories, too, and this fills me with even deeper compassion for our shared humanity -- our shared pain.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Dog Days

This has been one of the hottest July's I can remember. Humid + Muggy. To cool off, I borrowed some dried lavender and a delicious recipe from my best friend and sworn soul twin. Have I mentioned how amazingly wonderful it is to have her so near again? Memories come flooding back... nostalgic for my "free" days as a teenager in some sense, but also grateful for a different kind of freedom that comes with wisdom and age. Though our lives have progressed in very different ways outwardly, on the inside, I still feel the oneness I've always felt with her. It's a nebulous feeling that is beyond my capacity to write about in a way that captures the true depth or essence. When she so much as blinks her eyelashes, I feel as though I too, have just blinked. When she breathes in, I feel it in my chest. Beautiful, and strange, and untouchable. It is special to me; sacred. This bond.

The lemonade, though following the exact same recipe, tasted different from hers somehow. Mine had more punch to it from the citrus, while hers was much more fragrant in the lavender. I invited the ladies over and shook the lemonade with rosemary and cucumber vodka.... a perfect summertime cocktail I dubbed "the herbalist." Unfortunately, the cocktail seemed to lack the intense aromas of the herbs I envisioned it showcasing.

We spent the evening doing what typical, and non-typical women do: chatting about failed relationships, stupid men, personal and professional insecurities. We laughed a lot and ate Jessica's amazing gluten-free coconut cake, brought out the old beloved "birthday book" of astrology, and I gave tarot readings.

Alone the next day, I decided to do a reading of my own. The cards point to stability in the home, financial security, and spiritual cultivation as well as integrity and the taming of one's animal nature. It also suggested my husband and I would have two sons -- possibly twins. I wanted to know if I should expect that last one sooner or later, but I could not get a read off of the last question. To be completely honest, I'm okay with later -- I really am. I'm also okay with just one child, which is something I never thought I'd say.

As the heavy heat continues to sit like a fat man on a park bench over Atlanta, I'm staying indoors and making things to cool us off. Mint iced tea and avocado gazpacho.

And as for the practice, well.... I've given myself a day's break. I've felt recently as though I've been too close to the pratice, my face pressed up against the mirror in order to make out my whole image: all I've been able to see is my nose, and mistaking two eyes for one. Sometimes it helps to give it a little space, a little breathing room. Relax, take a step back.... and gain a little more perspective. Then go back to the cushion.

Friday, July 29, 2011


Originally, I made the meditation nook in the office corner, beneath a window. For a few weeks I've been sitting there in the mornings, mid-afternoon, and evening. It's been noisy, but bearable. There is the railroad tracks and the marta rail line, there are cars passing by, neighbors using electric saws, hammers, leaf blowers. I've been trying to use these as meditation ques to dig deeper into concentration. For the most part, I've been successful. Until I started noticing car stereos. Even these wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for that one car just a few days ago, blasting at full decible that awful screaming song from ten years ago whose lyrics yell as follows: "I hate everything about you." What band was that? A perfect circle?

What an awful mantra to get stuck in one's head! So, I decided it might be a good idea to experiment with moving the meditation spot to a quieter, more peaceful room. We have a hallway that we don't use because we enter and exit the house from the back rather than from the front. Initially, we were thinking we'd use the space for extra storage -- sort of as a walk-in closet. It's perfect in that the hallway closes off with two doors, making it rather private. So at the last minute this afternoon, just before work, I pulled all of the junk out of the closet and set to decorating it for meditation. I added a small shrine, hung my favorite antique tapestry, and lit incense to bless the space. Though there are no vents for the air conditioning in there, but it will be an experiment worth trying in the search for the right spot to sit.

In other experiments, here is a silly little painting I slapped together this week at a painting class downtown. My sister talked me into it and we had a blast! The colors seem a bit too tropical, but I enjoy seeing the art that comes out of me. It's always a surprise. Now it, too, is hanging in the new meditation area.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Do What's Right For You

I've found many great sources for guidance lately. First and foremost, Bhante G's book Mindfulness in Plain English. Never before has any one person put the how-to of meditation practice into such easily accessible terms. He writes about it so clearly, with a certain pointed simplicity that is actually incredibly profound.

This website  also contains a wonderful wealth of guidance and inspiration. There is an enormous collection of talks by one of my very favorite dhamma teachers, Ayya Khema. Listening to one of her talks today gave me just that one tiny little nudge in the direction I need and it has made all the difference.

Having a plethera of dhamma writings at one's disposal is a real gift and blessing. At the same time, it can also have its downside. We can get caught up in one teaching, in one method, in one way of doing things because we read about it and it said "this is the way to concentration! you must do this!" that we actually hem ourselves in and become bound and stuck in the practice. Ironic, isn't it?

This is exactly where I was heading. Stifling myself. Trying to hard to concentrate on those nostrils, just watch the nostril, feel the nostril!, that everything started to become stale and lifeless. Where did the joy go that I so recently knew?

Ayya Khema says in her talk that there are so many methods for attaining concentration. Do what works for you! Did I really needed to be reminded of this very simple fact? Yes, yes I sure did. Do what works for you.

What works for me is sitting down, closing my eyes, touching the breath lightly with my mind, and tapping right into that inner experience of simple being. What about that concentration method of noticing the nostrils? It's still there, but it's not the absolute, total, and complete focus. I'm not straining my brain to watch it. It's just there. Easy. So I let go of it, just a little, just enough to feel the being-ness that is here, constantly, peacefully abiding inside. That's what works for me. That's where the peace lives, the loving-kindness, and the insight.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Faith in Ourselves

Kudzu antique store on the way to the dekalb farmer's market has a special way of tugging at my heart's desires. After much successful suppression, the husband and I finally gave in and went paroosing. The little birdie mirror above won me over completely! Simple. Elegant. Charming.

Continuing the "mirror motif," as J has affectionately called our current obsession with mirrors in unexpected places, we also discovered this piece to complete the dining room ensemble.

On another, more thoughtful note, we discovered our very first tomato sproutling. As previously mentioned, there are three plants, each of a different tomato variety. For weeks now we have watched two of the tomato plants take off to the sky, while one lingered sadly behind -- barely growing at all. We were afraid it'd end up a dud. Despite our best efforst, despite sufficient sunlight, good healthy soil, and constant watering, our faith in this one runt of the litter threatened to wane.

Wouldn't you know it.... that little runt tomato plant is the first of the three to bare its fruit.

It's easy to lose faith. It's essential to keep it. This tomato plant is reminding me of a good and valuable lesson aptly timed for my path at this moment. Have faith in yourself, in your ability to grow and progress. Have faith in your natural abilities. Believe that there is blue sky behind the clouds, even if you cannot yet see it. Meditation can be such a challenge, and if it does not bare fruit quickly we may begin to doubt it and our ability to be successful with it. But if all of the right ingredients are there -- sunlight, diligent watering, careful pruning, and a healthy dose of love and attention -- growth will come. It's the natural law of the universe.

Have faith in yourself! It is one of the strongest currents that will pull you through.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011

Where I Go

...."Well I go to the river to soothe my mind, ponder over these crazy days of my life. Sit and watch the river flow." Natalie Merchant

This is the meditation hall at the women's retreat. I pulled an older photo from the website. There've been changes since. The carpet is no longer there, having been replaced by a smooth white cement floor which illuminates the room in a gorgeous, bright way that helps light up the mind. The way the light bounces from all directions in the room, it stimulates the mind when the eyes are closed to feel as though you are awake, aware, and instantly present.

The retreat last week was nothing short of amazing. It nurished me, deepened me, broke open my heart, and planted both of my feet firmly on the path. I feel I've talked so much about it in the last few days since being home that I find it hard to write about it now. So I'll move more into the present.

The evening I returned home was only hours following my ordination by Bhante in the eight lifetime precepts. The ceremony I took part in was so powerful. I felt totally gripped by the spirit in ways that are difficult to articulate. The most magical moment for me was immediately following the precepts, when I'd been given my pali name, had a mindfulness string tied to my wrist and a madallion placed around my neck. I crawled back to my meditation cushion at the feet of Bhante G, Ayya S and Sayalay S, with the other retreatents behind me. Bhante then began leading everyone else through the five precepts, and I closed my eyes, falling fast and deep into metta absorption. My mind was so clear and relaxed, and my entire being glowed with love and warmth for my sisters taking their five precepts. I wished them courage and strength on their path, love and happiness in their hearts, and calm, peaceful minds.

It was this final meditation at the monastery, my last and most natural (and most profoundly real), which followed me back home and transformed me. The moment I walked in the front door the extent to which I had changed and was at that moment wide open and radiating love, was so utterly poignant. I looked at my husband and as we spoke I could see him, truly see him. I felt so much love flowing through me that evening that even though I'd been awake for 22 hours, having done the entire ceremony, meditated, and drove 10 hours home, I longed with all my heart to simply go right into meditation for the rest of the night and into the dawn. The moon was full and bright in the kitchen window. I looked up into the glowing sky and felt pure exstacy, my vision somehow wider at the perifery.

I knew it would fade with time. It had to, because that is the nature of all things. Until that space has been cultivated and stabilized as a mind habit through continual daily meditation -- which may take years -- it can only stay for a little while. And this is part of the dhamma, isn't it? That all things are impermanent. That we can hold nothing, for everything, every single particle of existence, is in constant movement, flux, and flow.

And so, some meditations are productive, while some are not. I've been finding lately that my morning sessions are more of a challenge, while the evenings are more substantial and accessible. I struggle. Sometimes mindfulness is so easily available. Sometimes sitting is like repeatedly almost falling into a sleepy dream, which is the opposite of mindfulness and not meditation. I know that this too, must be taken up and used in the practice, but it is hard not to react, to not add in a sense of aversion or frustration.

It will take some more time, and some thoughtful exerpimenting, to find how the practice will fit into my life here in the city, which is drastically different from the peace and tranquility I found in the mountains last weekend. Rousing my energy up there was easier, even at 430am every morning. Here, it is much more difficult. Lethargy weighs more in the morning. Distractions are in abundance.

But when it's good, it's been real good. Like last night, coming home from spending the evening with my best friend, my heart so warm and open with love, melted and soft inside. I went right to the cushion and fell easily into a calm, concentrated space. I felt I could have stayed there for hours...

Friday, July 8, 2011

A foot and a half on the path

I meant to bring my camera along for this trip. It was the one thing I forgot. There's always the last resort camera phone! 

I'm 4 hours south of my destination, in a small bed and breakfast outside of Roanoke, Virginia. It's lovely here. I enjoyed a peaceful picnic on this patio, next to a little pond with a waterfall. There is a very old garden of boxwoods, planted in rows that form a maze. I've been meaning to walk through it, but may not get around to that this trip.

The decision to stay here was a spontaneous one. Something about it felt much better than staying in a cheap motel. The company I find myself in is interesting. I sat at the dining room table this morning with a set of identical twins -- ladies in their late 50's or so. There was a gentleman from the UK with wonderfully fluffy red hair and a splendid accent. The inn-keeper, Kathy, spoke this morning about death and how she feels she is fine to die as long as she's been "saved." Her cousin, Dawn, another small southern woman in her sixties, is the one person here with whom I've formed an affectionate bond. She's a sweet ole gal... sneaks off to smoke on the porch where I tuck myself to read Thich Nhat Hanh. I can tell that her and Kathy keep trying to get a beed on me -- why I'm there, a young woman, traveling alone... where I'm going and what I'm up to. Dawn asks me this morning, "how did you manage to get out without the husband?" to which I replied, "Oh, he didn't really want to come." She raised her eyebrow gloriously with a wicked smile. I just laugh. And, given Kathy's breakfast conversation on dying and being saved by Jesus, well, one could easily see why I've kept my travels to the buddhist monastery my little secret. It's really rather funny to me to be such an intriqueing figure for these little southern chics! haha

On a more serious note, I'm trying to shore up my concentration for the trip ahead. What will be the goal of my practice for the week? I stumbled upon this quote today by Hanh, and it has helped to situatate me on the path:

"In the first six months, try only to build up your power of concentration, to create an inner calmness and serene joy. You will shake off anxiety, enjoy total rest, and quiet your mind. You will be refreshed and gain a broader, clearer view of things, and deepen and strengthen the love in yourself. And you will be able to respond more helpfully to all around you."

The ironic thing is that Ayya Khema says a bit of the opposite in her book I'm reading. She says that people often get too comfortable with the peace and tranquility in retreat... that it's important to go deeper with our practice.

However, the biggest concern for me at this moment is how to open my heart. I am most aware right now of how closed I can often be to the world: feeling restricted, fearful, clam-like. I'd like to sit more mindfully with the awareness of interdependence, seeing always the interconnectivity I have with others. I think my goals should be to establish harmony and love within my self, to build a strong, peaceful foundation along with quiet and calm in the mind. Then, from there, apply concentration and insight to the concept of no-self so that I may penetrate the illusion of self boundaries.

Here I go! Ready or not. A foot and a half on the path....

Sunday, July 3, 2011


Despite what it may say, there are no herbs in this box! These are actually shamrocks that I saved from the dumpster at work. They love this box and have really flourished since moving to our new home. Shamrocks are really beautiful and have interesting cycles. When the sun goes down their kite-like leaves fold together and close for the night. In the morning, they open wide and bloom new tiny white flowers.

This box does have herbs growing. I made the poor decision of planting mint beside my rosemary here. As you can see, the mint is already exploding with growth. The rosemary will need to be transplanted soon to another, more private home.

Here is one of my three tomato plants. I believe this is the heirloom tomato plant. The other two are cherry tomatoes, and then your basic garden variety.

I find myself in an interesting space today. I'm trying to feel my way into the emotions, trying to open them up the way the sun opens those lucious green leaves of the shamrock by shining light directly on them. Yesterday when I sat in meditation I focused on loving-kindness (metta). I imagined the new child coming into the world for J and his wife M. I felt overwhelming joy and happiness and love for the both of them, for the incredible gift they are sharing together. It was a wonderful session because these thoughts and feelings towards J & M were quite unexpected and unplanned.

Last night as I lay awake waiting for Jason to come home I began to experience panic and fear pretty strongly. I don't know what overcame me. Logic told me that of course he was just working his normal closing hours, and likely doing inventory at the end of the night, which was why he wasn't home yet by 2am. But I felt paralyzed by fear anyway.

Today, I wonder if what I felt was something else. Was I tapping into another's emotions perhaps? Was J feeling fear and anxiety, perhaps even panic of the coming child with M? Were they at that moment in the throws and shadows of the unknown, mysterious, and painful labor process? I pondered this in meditation this morning, and experienced a totally different set of emotions than the previous day's joy. Instead, I became aware of gripping sadness. I stayed with the sadness and dwelt in it for a while, feeling its contours and asking with openness what it meant and from where it came. The more I opened to it the more I began to see its dynamism -- that sadness and pain is not a one-sided emotion. It has a shape with sides, and on its most opposite side there is love. Great love. And profound intimacy. It is the intimacy which bears a sharp quality, which cuts me deep with a two-sided blade of both love and sorrow. I do miss, long for, and ache over the often lack of intimacy in my life right now. I am good at ignoring it, and skilled at covering it over with laughter and humor. But when I am quiet and alone, it comes out and surrounds me like a wide, dark, and haunting room.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Life is Sweet

This is our new addition to the family: Cleveland the moo moo kitty. He's wonderfully sweet, playful, intelligent, and healthy(!). He brings joy to our lives and stirs gentle thoughts of children.

I've been trying my hand at scones lately, thanks to Jessica's splendidly quick and easy recipe. The first batch I made was better than the second. My initial try yeilded whole wheat, orange-zested peach scones. They were absolutley perfect! The second batch, pictured here, were not quite as successful. I tried to prepare them by memory and I think I may have skimped on the buttermilk. Was it half a cup or a whole cup? These little biscuits are a tad dry.... which is alright. It can easily be made up for by dunking them in the coffee!

Our living room is finally coming together. Our new couch arrived; just in time for visitors! We loved having Scott stay with us. He and Jason talked into the night about comics and philosophy and theology... it was fascinating to see the two boys completely nerd-out together.

I've been preparing for my journey north next week to the monastery. Some sitting sessions have been a real struggle, others have been easier and more love-filled. I am a little worried that I haven't been able to sit for longer than 30 minutes in any given time. Next week I will be sitting with everyone for hours at a time! Hopefully it will be easier to fall into once I am surrounded by the forrest with no work to be done, with nothing pressing on me, no contacts with the internet-world, the phone, no kitten nipping at my toes. There will be other distractions I'm sure -- the mind, the body -- but I can meet those, a moment at a time.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Summer Pleasures

Window treatments.

Baggett. Pizza Dough. Whole wheat bread loaf. Rizing in the summer heat.

Cardamom-spiced peach & apricot jam.
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Saturday, June 18, 2011

Beginning Again

I've been working at creating a firm foundation for meditation practice for roughly seven years now. Of course, this has been speckled time -- on again, off again. That isn't of much matter.

Over the last year I have discovered a secret. Perhaps is has taken me these seven years to realize what blocked my path. Meditation is not something to do. It's not a duty, or a doing, or an action. We call it a practice, but that's because it takes time and patience and consistent repetition. It's a practice in that it is a way of life, something on-going, ever unfolding.

Once I began to realize that it wasn't something I sat and "did," the practice really began to open up for me. As much as I had read and heard that buddhism directs us towards a letting go of the self, I also began to not distance myself so much from the self. We do have a self, perhaps two of them. One is made of personality, and dies when the body dies. Another is made of energy, is without masks, and is always present, though often covered over and unnoticed. This is what meditation is for -- seeing the gap between the two, and spending more time with the faceless self. In meditation, I cultivate a place for that self to expand and breath.

Sitting again regularly now, I am reminded at how much persistance we need in the beginning. I am able to find that space where my real self sits, but that space is unsteady still. I flicker in and out of it as my mindfulness waxes and wanes. It makes me think of a flame flickering, sometimes steady, full and bright, sometimes wavering and blowing about. I enjoy the challenge of holding it steady. When it flickers in and out, as soon as I realize the shift I simply begin again.

When you find yourself wandering, simply hit the restart button. I've found that it is something which I only need to do in a subtle, soft way. I can't overthink it, or overdo it. It's nothing that requires great effort at all. Maybe I simply need to relax my face more, or shift my butt slightly on the pillow. Sometimes I take in a bigger breath and breath it out nice and slow, or roll my shoulders back. These small movements can help bring you back and settle in more comfortably. Do it as often as you need to -- even if it's a hundred times in a twenty minute session. Slowly, the space you are creating becomes broader, more still, and even.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Your Life is Your Practice

The three fireplaces are my favorite attributes of our new home. I'm still working on the living room fireplace, so I've yet to post photos of it. The living room is the one place we're still waiting to put together. Our new couch is on its way and once it arrives everything should come together nicely.

This is the bedroom fireplace. Our bed faces this mantel, and I've kept the decorating to a minimum. The colors in here are keeping with black and white, and darker woods. On the walls near the bed I've put up two large Ansel Adams photographs in black and white, and a local artist's black and white framed photo of the weeping bride in Savannah's historic graveyard.

I read a wonderful article in Tricycle yesterday about how to incorporate your meditation practice into everything you do. It's a great reminder that we are never too busy to bring mindfulness into our lives.

I really like the idea that Thich Nhat Hahn puts forth in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness. He suggests picking one day a week to make your own day of mindfulness. It's a day in which from the moment you wake up you follow a set intention to watch the breath and to be fully engaged in everything you do. You wake in the morning and the first thought should be "waking in the morning, I take a deep breath in and a deep breath out." Something along those lines in whatever way works for you. Then you go throughout the day alternating meditation times with work tasks. When you do the dishes, or make the bed, you only do the dishes and you only make the bed. Your thoughts and your awareness is fully with each thing you do while you do it, and also on your breath.

I'd like to consider over the course of the next week when a a day might be which I can give to this practice. The women's retreat in West Viriginia is coming up in just a few short weeks, when I will spend five days in silence, meditating most hours of the day, waking at 5am with the monks and nuns, eating very little, and practicing austerities. It's become my priority to prepare myself now by making my life my practice.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Leaving the Self in order to Love the Self

I've been re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh's The Miracle of Mindfulness today, and turning once again back to my practice, which has long been neglected. Final exams + three week illness + moving = easy distractions. It's important not to "punish" ourselves for dropping our committment to the practice. What is important is maintaining the will and earnst desire to return to it.

Compassion for ourselves is a topic hanging around in my mind for well over a year now. It's a captivating idea for most of us. It immediately draws our attention and creates that pulling feeling in our hearts and stomachs. It has this power because we know it is something which is literally dying to be cultivated more.

The tricky thing about having compassion for ourselves is that it's not as straight-forward or easy as it at first appears. When I first began to truly come face to face with the notion of self compassion as a necessary ingredient to growing loving-kindness for others, there was a sort of niave decision that declared "Yes, I am going to do this! I am going to be heedful of forgiving myself and being kind and gentle." The thing is, situations come up which make this simple task incredibly complicated and, at times, even seemingly impossible.

I don't have all of the answers for you on how to shine right through all of the complexities and difficulties of loving ourselves. I can, however, share this one small nugget of a lesson hard-earned this past weekend.

The details are not that important, but here is the brief of it: I found myself in the excitement of a moment, became totally heedless, drank far more than my reasonable share of wine, and without thinking twice wound up accidently causing another person great embarassment. Now that's an excruciating one, isn't it? The mistake of such carelessness, in its aftermath, burns like full sun into a tunnel of once safe and quiet darkness.

It begs the question of forgiveness. How do we forgive ourselves for harming another? Of course it was never my intention to cause someone else suffering. There was absolutely no ill-will involved. It was simple carelessness. But what's truly hard, for myself, is to find a way to forgive myself and move forward.

Coming back to the meditation path is one step in the right direction. I resolved that I would need to sit with it, literally, and really look deeply into the source of anguish now lingering heavily over me. This is one tool which I've taken from various sources of spiritual wisdom. When something is painful, go right into the searing heart of it. Look directly into what's really hurting. What I found surprised me.

What was causing so much residual pain was not actually the knowledge that I had hurt someone else by embarassing them, it wasn't actually about the other person at all. It was about me. It hurt to be a person who had caused another embarassment. It had everything to do with self and becoming and nothing to do with real or genuine remorse. This first deep realization was the epitome of staring straight into the painful heart of the matter -- it hurt even more. This is the exact place where the healing becomes possible. This is the precise point where we need to dig our hearts and minds deeper and stretch ourselves creatively.

I found in this moment what needed to be done in order to stop the terrible pain, the self-loathing, and the vicious cycle which often sours into self-hatred and self-anger, and robs us of real growth with compassion.

What I needed to do was move my attention from this point of self and turn it towards the person who I'd embarassed. I asked myself, "what do you want to say or do for this person?" I spoke to the person in my mind, felt what they felt, offered them consolation, comfort, and love. What's more, and an interesting point to make I believe, is that in talking to them in my mind I did not apologize. Apologizing would have been about me, and perhaps for me. What really healed this moment was to reach out to the other and be fully there for them, offering endless love and care and good wishes.

After spending a good deal of time with these thoughts and wishes, I returned to my normal breath meditation. I checked in with how I felt about myself and I found that the tightness, the anguish and the pain that had been there before was now replaced with warmth and gentleness.

Sometimes, in order to find self compassion and self forgiveness, we have to leave the self behind and reach further, reach way out, touch others, touch the world around us, so that we may come back to the self fuller, softer, melted, and purified.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Keep it simple

The dining room. From afar, it appears as though the windows here are in need of linen treatments! Hmm... what color should I choose? Minty sage, cream, or tope?

As a thank you for the delicious brownies, yesterday I made stawberry-papaya hot pepper jam and delivered jars to each of our neighbors. Along with loaves of freshly baked homemade bread.

{The fireplace in my study} I've decided to keep my decorating simple and clean for the first time in my life. The mirror above the mantel here was my grandmother's and is of course very special to me. Inside the glass jars are all of my little rocks and sea shell collections, neatly contained rather than spread around on shelves to collect dust as I've done in the past. I'd like simple black frames for these photographs on either side of the mirror. They're old finds from the CARE archive that neighbor Jenn brought home one day.