Friday, December 31, 2010

Playful Humility

Today, the calendar year comes to an end.

This is no longer my New Year's. I have become too familiar with other traditions to see the end of this calendar as the end of my year. Naturally, fall feels most the end of the year for me, but according to the Tibetan Buddhist Calendar, my "calendar of faith" it comes in the beginning of March, which also feels pretty right. February is what we call "Mamo" season - a time when the tough stuff gets toughest, which is especially true to my experience having lived in Wisconsin my whole life. That's what is my real New Year's, now, in practice.

That having been said, for some reason New Year's Eve can be hard for me - I have always thought it was because of a pressure to perform - to enjoy parties, kind of like Halloween and St. Patty's Day, which don't trigger me but which I also mostly avoid. Maybe it's because it's the end of a tough time - the natural grieving period of the end-of-year holidays.

But this year I feel a slight change. A release in pressure, a chance to take it easy, and a desire to turn over to a new calendar. This quote was in my box today, from a weekly service sent out from a Shambhala teacher, and it hit the right chord (to join the mailing list or see the blog, click here).

PLAYFUL HUMILITY Humility in the Shambhala tradition involves playfulness, or a sense of humour. In many religious traditions, you feel humble because of a fear of punishment, pain, and sin. In the Shambhala world, you feel full of it. You feel healthy and good. In fact, you feel proud. Therefore, you feel humble. That’s one of the Shambhala contradictions, or we could say, dichotomies. Real humility is genuineness.
-Chogyam Trunpga Adopted from "Discipline in the Four Seasons," in GREAT EASTERN SUN: The Wisdom of Shambhala, page 63.

I hear that. I feel that. A humility that comes not because one is humiliated or trying to be "not humiliated (ie puffed up pride)" but a sense of wonder, of awe, and of course, of humor.

Here's to 2011, whatever you are, and my increasing sense of humble awareness, which, as it increases, I work to be even more humble about. There's nothing like the Dharma to be both awfully profound and ass-kickingly ironic at the same time.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Flea in Your Ear?

(a blurry shot of a Buddha in the Himalayan and Southeast Asian permanent exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago juxtaposed against the LED exhibit of Jitish Kallat's steps)

"Puce a l'oreille" is a phrase in French I only learned late in my time studying abroad. A French friend and I were driving to her parent's house* and she said the phrase quite quickly, in regards to a set of friends she was describing to me. "A Flea in the Ear?!" I remarked back, slowing down the phrase, and she laughed. I imagine she was recalling, as was I, the time I was in a laundromat down the street from my flat and heard a suspicious-acting guy behind me say "Putain de la Merde!" which literally means "Whore of Shit." I thought he was talking to me, but it turns out that is a common - though vulgar - euphemism, similar to "Fuck this."

She giggled and then said that having "a flea in your ear" is like in English when we ask someone if their nose was tickling, because we were speaking of them. It means a rumor, and the idea is that the person the rumor is being told about would feel an itching in their ear, like a flea.
"But why a flea?" I asked - I was a linguistics student but still expected a story to answer every metaphor. "Good lord," she replied, "your guess is as good as mine."

I am studying currently for a seminary - Buddhist, secular, called "Sutrayana Seminary" in the Shambhala Tradition. I'll spend most of February in a small center - Karme Choling - in the middle of nowhere Vermont, surrounded by snow and other seminarians. I won't come out a monk or nun - it is simply to further my classical Buddhist "sutra" (scriptures/study) education. In the text today, as there is much studying to do in preparation for the retreat, I ran into the following description from Chogyam Trungpa. He is describing big, distracting thoughts while meditating, versus subtle, almost undetectable ones:

"It's like the difference between an elephant walking on you and a little flea on your nose."
I stopped in my tracks and laughed - though Trungpa was born in Tibet, his English was superb - very accurate, very precise, very curious. I don't know if this is a euphemism he is translating from another language (Tibetan? Sanskrit? Pali?), a classical description of the difference between "big" thoughts and flickering, idle "subtle" thoughts, or if he made up the images on the spot. But it brought the story of the flea in the ear right back to me.

The connection between body and mind, experiencing our thoughts physically, literally as sensations, comes up again and again in the texts. Whenever I teach, especially Miksang but also in writing, I refer back all the time to the importance of treating our mind as a sixth sense organ and our thoughts as something that organ senses. This is classic Buddhist phenomenology - I certainly didn't make it up - but when I teach something again and again, even if it is taught from my own experience, sometimes it becomes dull. This reading today really sharpened up for me the trust that we need to have that we can actually tell what the heck is going on at any given time, most especially in our minds. That we can train to sense even the tiniest sensations - even the tiniest thoughts, worries, elaborations, and learn to acknowledge them, then let them go and come back to what is happening now.

A common description, again, in classic Tibetan Buddhism, for the increased sensitivity of a practitioner of meditation is this. In regular life, before one began sitting as a regular practice, one experiences irritation like a hair on the back of one's hand. When having sat a lot, becoming more aware and present, it feels like a hair on one's eyeball. Why would one want that kind of sensation? Because the hair was actually that "damaging" (even beneficial) or intense all the time. The hair on the hand sensation is the delusion - it's not that we become more sensitive meaning we interpret things as more personal - we become more sensitive to how things actually are. We notice that even the tiniest, discursive gossip (flea in the ear, or flea on the nose) can cause disruption, pain, bad choices, hurt ourselves or someone else, and we learn to work with them.

We can instead run a flea circus, so to speak, where we train the fleas to do what we need done - working toward supporting ourselves, knowing ourselves thoroughly, not being so surprised and hurt all the time, helping others.

Trungpa describes samsaric body/mind as being unsynchronized. Again, we talk about this in Miksang, and a bit in writing practice, but somehow it really hit home with all the flea analogies. Just because we don't feel something in our body or mind doesn't mean it is not in pain - how many friends of mine have gone to the doctor for a regular checkup, only to have them find a tumor the patient never would have detected on her own? This kind of awareness isn't paranoia - it's finding out where the hurt is, dealing with it, healing it, before it kills us. We can equally stop hurtful words or thoughts before they "go too far" - beyond our control. Even gossip (about others, about ourselves to ourselves...) can grow the same way - cell upon cell until a flea has become an elephant, crushing everything in its sight.

*Her parents lived in a quirky little country town called "Perne les Fontaines" - a Provencal village famous for having more fountains (40) than any other town. In particular, my favorite was the "Fontaine Gigot" - "Chunk of Meat Fountain."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Indoor Storms

Where have I been?
That's a good question.

I use this time of slowing down end of semester and year to consider how the past 365 days have gone. Where have I visited and taught, what has worked and what hasn't? These questions are crucial and it's not that I don't consider them throughout the year, of course. It's just that New Year's approaching brings revival to mind, and review.

The last month or so has been consistent with the rest of this fall - a blur of Hakomi therapy and resultant heavy emotional processing, weddings and other significant high-caliber celebrations, way too much travel for my own good without enough weekends off, buying the Shambhala Center here in Madison, and endless richness in my weekly writing classes. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to enact something I had been considering doing for awhile - actually using the last class of the week, Wednesday night, to write a "summary" of the week's replies from students and myself. Only, of course, it comes out in writing practice form, so it isn't a list, more a channelled essay. Because the first week I did it was a very rich and somewhat heavy topic (Sacred Space) the end piece blew us all away. This last week's (looking at images of landscapes and writing from there) didn't take as much out of me, but still helped to "process" all the 35 or so stories I hear each week. Anonymously, of course.

I hope to bring these pieces to this blog. I would like to let the students have that as a resource - a combined "hive mind" of wisdom that I don't want stopping at just me. Also, all of these pieces - mine and students' - I am ongoing collecting for an eventual book. Eventual meaning "I have enough on my plate right now but that doesn't stop me from planning it."

Today Dylan and I will finish hanging our new indoor storm windows, a somewhat dated way of keeping out wind that appealed to us when his grandfather in Maine demonstrated his to us a few months ago. I like this idea of the protection from leaking coming from the inside - and as my friend Morgan joked on Facebook when I first posted that we were considering them - "indoor storms are somewhat rare." It never hurts to have a little extra insulation for when things go a bit amok inside and not just out there, where tonight we are expecting our first big blizzard of the season.

The image the indoor storm windows give me is of a classic Tibetan Buddhist analogy: If you want to be able to walk the path, don't try to cover the whole path in carpet to keep your barefeet from getting poked and prodded. Instead, cover your own feet in shoes. Take responsibility for what hurts and work with it internally. This doesn't mean no social justice, but it does mean not making everything about us. Indoor storm protection seems like a good first step for me this way. After all, we can't stop the blizzard from coming, but we can keep the homefires burning.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Never Let Me Down Again

"Taking the Refuge Vow is taking a vow in yourself. Your own Basic Goodness."

This is what my preceptor (person who gives the vow) told me before I took my Refuge Vow, the "first" vow you take as a formal Buddhist, to say out loud that you will aspire to look to the Dharma first for solutions, clarity and sanity. Of course, sometimes I still look first to chocolate or TV or books, but setting one's intention in this way can help - and has helped me. Especially when I remember to do it. That can be the hardest step - remembering to do sitting meditation, to take a walk even, when the shit hits the proverbial fan.

Because it does. It will. Inevitably, and not just during potentially - loaded holiday season, I get cranky, sad, off. I express anger meant for the world at large at my lover, I focus on what is not working over what is. And you know what? A lot isn't working, doesn't work, won't work. This isn't a feel-good message that nothing will ever go wrong again or even that I won't suffer because it is going wrong. It's faith that I can endure that, that I am bigger than that.

The title of this post is from the Depeche Mode song of the same title. I used to take it quite literally, dedicating it to my best friends, people who didn't let me down. But over time, I let everyone down at least once, as they did me. No longer could any of us promise each other we were "safe as houses, as long as we remember who's wearing the trousers." I started to see the parody in the song - the ridiculous rhymes pointing to the absurd expectation that we can actually protect anything - ourselves, others - from hurt, from pain. That we could ever not be let down again. On the literal level, this is impossible. We will fall, we do. And hurt ourselves and others.

And yet, we can never let ourselves down again. I can. Not be let down. Because if I understand that it is not about me, then there's no me to be let down. Reading Sutrayana Seminary transcripts in preparation for my month retreat at Karme Choling in Vermont next February, it comes up again and again - this is the Four Noble Truths, this is the truth of perception, this is what is actually going on - that there is no "me" in the way we think of there as being, and if there is no me, there's no letting me down again. It's the ultimate, infalliable grief and the ultimate ineffable joy - nothing to fix and no one to fix it for. It's all Good.

For today, I can get this. I can remember this, on a literal level. While eating my coconut curry soup, while talking with a friend, seeing a movie, I might remember my vow for awhile and default to clarity and honesty instead of self-deception. Even when I forget, and turn to sleep or eat as avoidance, or try to hide in my own fear, it is still "me" - a different me, a more expansive and ever present me - who can help me remember again. That's who will never let me down again - the "me" who took the vow - who may not show up all the time, but who is never gone, regardless. This is on the Ultimate Level - not literal, not daily, but Ultimately.

This Ultimate non-abandoning me was never gone. The vow just called her up from the depths, and we promised to keep our heads above water together. Never let each other down again - in the biggest and most important way - by remembering our vow to take Refuge in what is, again and again, as often as it takes.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Impermanence Poems

It's November, which for novelists means NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, and for poets means PAD chapbook challenge - Poem a Day. I started doing this a couple of years ago after doing Poem a Day during the month of April - National Poetry Month - and last year I finished a chapbook (which hasn't been published but I love it none the less) on native place names of Wisconsin. Quite a few of the poems went into my finished poetry book manuscript Family Matters (NYP).

It's great. For once I can receive a prompt instead of giving one and respond to it according to what is in my head. I treat it like writing practice, and write spontaneously.

Yesterday's was on "small spaces" or "contained" - and I have been tossing around some ideas in my head ever since I left for Milwaukee at noon. Now looking out over Marquette before dinner with my brother, the pieces are falling together.

Blow Out
after the sculptures of Chakaia Booker in MAM

On my way, I see the usual litter
of semi truck tires shredded and encasing
dead raccoons, railings and other
skins of tire shreds. The thick black
bakes in the sun, and takes me
to the inside of the light and air museum,
where your sculptures of rubber sit heavily
along one hallway. There, the old tires
are just about to expand, to blow out,
curled back with your force of art
into flower and cunt and ball shapes,
screwed, hammered, glued into place.

There is no way to contain the air inside of me
my breath comes ragged
as I drive past the accident
blown out tires a living sculpture.

Monday, November 01, 2010

So many forms of Impermanence

My brother Alex got married this weekend. It was a Halloween wedding, resplendent with major crafting done by my now sister-in-law, Patty, and many images of love mixed with impermanence. Bride and Groom skeletons, for instance, held up pumpkins with their names carved out, and a ghoulish butler invited everyone into the reception room.

Witches, goblins, zombies and ghosts attended the wedding, along with, of course, living costumed creatures: Mr and Mrs Potato Head, Masquerading Bridesmaid (that was me), a few devils and belly dancers. Some kind of goliath, a few goths and a secret detective who gave his ID away right away. One baby pumpkin, and so on. But the first list - witches, goblins, ghosts and zombies - struck me in particular because for my brother, sister-in-law and me, another set of ghosts attended the wedding: Alex's and my dead parents, Michael and Tricia. Patty, my sister-in-law, suggested that they place a white rose on each chair for our parents in the front row during the ceremony - and so in the front row at the ceremony (attended by other ghosts, goblins and ghouls) there lay their ghostly traces. Later, I carried the white roses with me everywhere - they sat at Dylan's and my dinner table, and visited the DJ table where Dylan made sure plenty of Thriller and other celebratory scary music was played to dance to. Now they are home with me, where I will dry them and add them to my Dio de las Muertos shrine.

Everywhere I went this weekend, I saw skeletons and skulls, and not just in costumes, in places I wouldn't expect: in art at the Milwaukee Art Museum, on the streets imbedded in concrete. Impermanence, sometimes in a joyful way, other times in complete sadness that overwhelmed me and threatened my careful makeup job, reared its head completely this weekend. Ostensibly we say that the wedding was Halloween themed because Patty is a Mortician - technically, a County Examiner - with a license plate "Morticia" and Halloween stuff all over their house any time of the year. But for me, the theme was perfect and quite healing, actually, considering how much death Alex and I have lived through in our family: our parents, all of our grandparents and great aunts and uncles, and a godparent all gone by our twenties. What better way to invite our whole family - not ever as big as Patty's, but once more sizeable than now - than to invite the dead as well.

And not just the kindly ghosts, but the haunters, spooks and zombies, too.

To invite impermanence itself to one's wedding is to do a brave act of acknowledging this short life. During his speech at the reception, Alex spoke of how our mother had cried for a month after our father's death. Then, he admitted, he thought to himself "Just get on with it," but now that he has so much to lose - Tyler, his son, and Patty, his wife to name the big ones - he understands her grief so much more.

To love is to know what it is to lose, to lose is to know what it is to love. A risk. Life is a risk.
A Halloween wedding acknowledges this. I thank them both more heartily than they could ever imagine for not only throwing the most fun wedding ever, full of bagpipes and dancing sausages and moustache props, but also for letting the sometimes-difficult truth of our existence dance in its skeletal form alongside our joy and laughter.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Meditation versus Contemplation

In meditation, we notice what is.
In contemplation we create a structure to connect with something specific.

In meditation, the whole mind is invited in.
In contemplation, the mind is harnessed toward a need.

In meditation, nothing is left out.
In contemplation, bracketing "shuts out" the to-do lists, etc, in favor of the perceptual moment.

In contemplative photography, we are given a prompt and taught to be loyal to the Flash of Perception. In Haiku, another contemplative form, we are attuned to nature and given the tight structure of 5-7-5. In Ikebana, the teachings of natural form are used to channel the mind into arranging flowers. In Contemplative Prayer, one comes up with a word or phrase to come back to, making the prayer an opening rather than a request. In Labyrinth walking, in Yoga, the body is given a physical structure and the mind presents through that. In Contemplative Writing, the mind is told how long and what about, and shows up in that form.

An overall sense of trust and acceptance arises (eventually) out of meditation.
A gap in consciousness naturally arises out of the Contemplative Experience.

A lot gets processed in meditation, even if we don't wind up "thinking about" much.
Almost nothing gets processed in Contemplation, though direct connections and "breakthroughs" are common.

The two really do need each other to balance out, but either way is "A Way" to clarity.

Monday, September 27, 2010


Stress is not enough rest.
Stress is wearing through breath, pushed to the last
step. Stress is plane ride after plane ride, dozens of
beautiful people blurred into one.

Stress is fun strained, a choice of long sleep over
dinner, visiting dear hearts, crying when coming home,
because sadness is the same as joy.

Perhaps stress isn't stress, perhaps stress is life.
Heartbeats up and down, pushed maybe higher
than usual, but still within range.

Body rebelling to the stress status quo
letting me know I need to slow down. Stress is my check,
my balance, a better system than my conscious decisions,

warning shots off the bow, out of proportion revisions,
a quiet voice inside unheard that makes itself known in strange
strained dreams and also in relief when I stop and breathe.

I've been traveling a lot this year, and especially this fall. My system is pushing itself, with strange medical and personal ailments arising. Each time I have arrived home the last few weekends off teaching, I cry and cry, overwhelmed, exhausted, unclear. I sleep a good 10-12 hours and wake a new woman, understanding that I need to do as close to nothing as I can after working all weekend and the week before, sometimes the weekend and week before that as well, as is the case today. I will do the minimum to keep things operating - Shambhala Center directing, student inquiries, Facebook check in, teaching one class - and spend the rest of the day not spending it at all, letting it drift by, bits of books here and there, magazines plopped in, silence filling the space around me and the space inside me, opening me up, airing me out, restoring the system from the stress of stress.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Belief Layer Cake

Underneath the frosting, find some sugar
in cake form, spongy and airy, a welcome
relief from the dark and heavy covering.

Rest there for awhile and believe
you have become free, until you see there is
yet another layer beneath,
a muddy area you sink into,
get your feet caught in,
where last year's beliefs
are still alive and well.

This is belief hell - the delicious layer cake
of acting one way and believing something else
the double, triple, quadruple self-deception
that carries us through daily interactions
and off to bed where the lower layers
show their underwear and reveal their rotting roots
in your dreams.

(spontaneous poem I just wrote about beliefs)

I've been thinking a LOT lately about beliefs. Not just thinking, but feeling them out, sussing them out in my body as well as my head. A few times, through Hakomi work and in conversation with folks, I have reached a point of realizing that I believe one thing but act as if another is real. This is no surprise, of course, anyone who pays attention will catch this in just about every interaction. But after a few years of practice I thought, for instance, that I didn't blame myself for my own pain, for instance, anymore. Only I do. Some part of me still believes when I am ill or in pain that I caused it, even though the rational parts of me have been trained through meditation and dharma to dismiss such gobbledygook. So much for rational thought.

Because rational thought does not run the body. This much has become very apparent to me in the last few months. Between A General Theory of Love and Perceiving Ordinary Magic, plus Hakomi work, plus, well, my "ordinary" awesome job(s) in which I get to pose questions about things like this and listen to up to 8 people write about it from their hearts, it has become really clear to me that this ship is run by my un/subconscious. Almost entirely. My conscious, controlled world is a farce, nearly non-existent. I feel both liberated and terrified by this (which commonly come together, in my experience): thus the cake metaphor.

In particular, this contrasting belief that I am basically good, made of basic goodness, inherently fresh and awake (as are all of you, beloved readers) VERSUS the inner belief that any kind of struggle, pain or suffering indicates there is something wrong with me is pretty harsh to see. Of course it's been pretty harsh to experience, and I'd rather see it than have it controlling me without my seeing it (as my own internal misogyny did for so long). Still, wow. Really? I believe that kind of shit about myself? Where did I get that from? Its etiology really isn't significant to me anymore, not as much as working it out of my system. Now comes the hard work of practice, which I quoted Hayward on earlier on this week on Facebook:

Fundamentally, the path of training and discovery is extremely simple, direct and uncomplicated. But that is not to say that it is effortless. The reason that the journey requires effort is that our imaginary-conceptual beliefs form layer after layer, like onionskins. As we peel off layer after layer, we come closer and closer to our most cherished beliefs, beliefs that we may not even realize we have and act by. -Jeremy Hayward, Discovering Ordinary Magic

So maybe it's an onion layer cake.

Monday, August 30, 2010

When There Is No Watch(er)

A few weeks ago, I took my great uncle's 1976 Hamilton watch into the little clock shop on Williamson St across from Grandpa's Gun Shop. The night before, I had hugged a student goodnight and in the process, somehow caught the watch on her backpack, which then snapped the pin out of the strap that holds it onto my wrist. After searching around for a needle-like object in a haystack-like hallway, I gave up, and decided I'd just get a replacement.

I entered the shop, which I had always passed and wondered about but never had cause to enter, owning only newer clocks, and in it one worker, an older man, crouched with a magnifying glass and glaring light over parts of a clock. His posture one of a jeweler, his intention one of a poet. I felt bad interrupting him, but the bell announced my entrance. He was a bit brusque being interrupted for such a small thing in the middle of a clearly larger, and more lucrative, project, but he quickly put in a new pin and charged me for it. He asked, as he handed back the watch with a scratched glass face I now felt self-conscious about, how it was treating me. "Well," I said, "so long as I don't over wind it, it does really well. I love it. It was my great uncle's." He grinned a half grin, and I left.

Of course, later that day, it stopped working. It was a bit like when my car is making a funny noise that it won't make for the mechanic - I thought, just watch, I'll bring it back to him and it will be working again. Instead, I took it off, suspected I wound it too tight and left it at home. I also realized that one of the watchband straps that hold down the other end had come off in the backpack accident, and didn't want to have to deal with getting a new band, now, too.

I haven't put it on since. At first it was hard to not have a watch - so many people operate with just their cellphones now, but I often don't have pockets and am habituated to having the time on my wrist, not on something I have to pull out to see. Mind you, I trust my cell phone's time better than anything else, but deep inside, I'm an analog girl, and I prefer to have mechanical over digital.

It turns out I prefer neither. Now, as time has passed - or so the calendar tells me - I have relaxed a bit, learned to trust my own sense of time. This weekend I taught a photography workshop and I tested out my sense of time - has it been half an hour? An hour? - in giving talks, during shoots, and listening to others give talks. For the most part I was spot on with the time. When I wore a watch I never bothered, and now, now I don't bother either, but I also seem to know the time and also, time is less important to me. That is to say, actually, that time seems MORE important to me (eg how I "spend" it) but knowing the exact time seems less important. I haven't been late for anything or blown anything off accidentally, so it hasn't really caused problems, and I have to say it has caused benefits to not have the hour so accessible all the time on my wrist.

Buddhism talks about "the watcher" in meditation - the seemingly separate part of ourselves that "notices" when, for instance, we've moved our attention off our breath and onto passing thoughts. It is said that of course there is no separate watcher, that what we are thinking and our awareness of it are one in an ultimate sense, and that we have to let go of that duality in the long run, so we aren't always policing ourselves and seeing a divided self. This is a bit how I've been feeling about time - I feel somehow more in time, on time, a part of time, and that feels natural - as if before, with a watch I checked often, I were more separate both from time and from myself. Weight Watchers feels like this - only the inverse case helped - not paying attention caused disassociation, while checking in with time passing all the time caused disassociation with time. Curious that. Habits are habits and can trigger duality, separation. It's not the system or structure that is inherently a problem, it's how I use it, what I associate with it.

Thursday, August 26, 2010


Digestion issues
Money issues

I've spent the last week or so working through piles of things, of excess, as they say, in all of these areas. So much time eliminating, in fact, that I forgot to catch up on doing, building, adding: preparing for a teacher training I am teaching this weekend, preparing for my weekly college course that starts next week - Next Week! How Did That Happen?! Of course I have been writing, but I also am not as close to getting my manuscript - proposal for Bermuda Triangles memoir - out the door to the press I want to buy it up. August 31st was my internal deadline - get it gone, out the door, before I begin teaching another course.
Another course.

I always forget until fall comes how hard it is to teach just one more day. With my weekly classes, which began 3 weeks ago, I push hard Monday through Wednesday until late, then Thursday I feel a bit liberated. If I go out of town to teach over the weekend, which I do usually every other week, or even teach over the weekend in town, like this weekend, then Thursday and Friday are my weekend. But once I start at Marquette, I lose Thursday to commute time, prep and teaching. When I do the online courses in the spring for Junior High kids, my time is more flexible - I can log on whenever, and the bulk of my work fades into the early week, as their online deadline is always Monday.

Fall is my favorite season, but this fall, I feel like I am falling into it. The summer was overloaded with big harvests in many ways, and I am wading through the excess, plucking out what I need. Can one have too much dharma, too much goodness, too much support? I suppose I need to pace myself, let it all last into the long, cold winter. Right now I want to push it all out the door and have a simpler situation so I can get done with some work, and have some down time. That sounds ironic, of course, but as a very wise friend said recently to me in a letter "You love your work, but even your work that you love can strangle you if you're not careful." Indeed.

So while it is true that I am rich, the richness needs niches, needs places to be stored for a bit. I can't eat all of it right now, can't wade through all of it - I need it to rest, I need to rest, so I can move forward out of the absorption stage of summer and into the working world of fall and winter and spring. Oh Academic schedule! How I was raised on you as a student, and a daughter of a father who taught. The gluttony of summer turns over in my mind and slims down into the follies of fall; rosters, schedules, grades, emails, readings, classes.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Listening In

I began writing classes again this week, and in one of the classes, a student asked me for "tips on how to listen like you do." Huh. No one had asked me that before. She mentioned that while they frequently note (and they do, as a class) how closely I listen, no one had ever asked me how I listen, or how I know how to listen.

Then, she said, to my amusement: "I mean, any tips besides saying that we should just practice a lot. I mean, I know you get to do this a few times a week and have been doing it for years. What else can you tell us?" Which made all of us laugh, of course.

I promised her I would think on it.
And then I decided I would post on it, after I took some notes on a flight at 6am.
So here goes...

On Listening

The most important aspect of listening is raw perception. Letting whatever is being communicated to you flow into your ears without obstruction is the key to a practice of deep listening. Any kind of preparation or practice that encourages and sharpens your senses will help with deep listening, as well. Practice when out on walks, practice when at a movie, practice anywhere, even in your bed, waking up in the morning, noticing and focusing your senses. Mingyur Rinpoche offers multiple options for "sense" meditation in his book Joy of Living - but even informally, concentrating on your senses - WITHOUT INTERPRETATION - is key.

Why not interpret? Interpreting engages a part of the brain that will block the strength of your raw senses. Just as in other parts of writing practice, we "bracket" or temporarily dis-engage the critic, we also want to bracket the linear mind. Concepts do not mix well with perceptions - an aspect we practice in Miksang photography. If you are thinking, you have left the perception and moved into the mind. The best interpretation, analysis or reflection comes from raw, open perceptions, including listening. Too many people feel they have to come up with a plan for what to say, how to offer insight to others when they respond (in my classes and in all of life). Let go of that: listen from the heart, I say, then you can speak back from that same place. Trust is key to this - that you don't have to know what you are going to say before you say it, just like you don't have to know what you are going to write before you write it. This is harder for some than others - but we all need to practice it, regardless.

What does raw perception feel like? How do you know you are doing it? One of my personal indicators - and yours could vary - is that I can relax enough to not listen to every single word as sharply. There's a sense of overallness, of space, and out of that space certain words or phrases seem to "stick up" (almost like hills on a landscape) and out to me. Those are the ones I write down. The more relaxed one is while listening, the better she can pick up on things like this. It is like the Magic Eye 3-D images that were so popular about a decade ago - you can't find the image hidden in the clutter if you are "trying too hard." Of course, telling someone to not "try too hard" is like telling someone to relax - almost impossible. But I can guarantee that trying to catch "significant" things in someone's speech will backfire. Any way in which you can relax into listening, open up to the whole picture, and let certain things rise to the surface will help you. This is also what we could call taking in the "bigger picture" - literally and figuratively.

When I do write down words, I am trying to not attach to them. Sometimes when we listen we want to linger with a particular phrase or get caught or stuck on something said oddly or that triggers us. It is best to learn to make contact with what you are hearing directly, but then, let go. So even as I write it down, I am working to let it go.

Listen for: words that repeat, alliteration (repeated or similar consonant sounds) assonance (repeated or similar vowel sounds), repeated themes. Also significant can be changes in tone of voice, where someone stumbles, where they pause, and where they speed up or slow down in speech. Finally, I always note the first sentence they write and what they say about a piece (in class) before they read it, if anything. Again, as I say this, it's also best to understand that I don't mean "Listen hard for these," rather, these are the kinds of things that will pop up in the landscape and often point to a deeper emotional resistance or engagement going on.

What we are noticing, especially in writing practice but also in conversation, isn't the content, really. What we are noticing are patterns of mind, the way mind is organized, what it is focused on, how it comes back and when, when it gets distracted. So even as we note the content, the patterns - of speech, of thought - are often the most powerful parts to note.

So, also, it is good to pay attention to our listening - how are we responding? Do you feel yourself tense up, tighten down, open out when listening to this person? Notice your own physical responses - your desire to close your eyes, open them, look at the person, look away. Gently notice their body - are they open or closed? Notice the beauty and strength in every being - even in a business conversation or negotiation, filled with certain "rules" for how to engage, under someone's personality, under their affects (or even including them, sometimes) you can sense where and how they are vulnerable, and have compassion for them. Let your heart connect with their heart.

This part is more for the classes, but could be true in life. First and foremost, stick as much as you can to "I Statements" - the main tool of psychotherapy and Non-Violent Communication. Make sure you aren't hiding judgment or projection behind your I Statements (lest they become passive aggressive). A real I Statement is something like this:
"I felt a sadness when I heard the part about your dog dying." A coy I Statement is something like this "I think you must have been so sad when your dog died." I Statements also work best when they lean on those raw perceptions I talked about above. So in this case, something akin to "I heard how you slowed down when you talked about your dog dying" is very powerful, and in a lot of ways, far more powerful than even your own feeling or projection into someone else's feelings.

I have recently been "reintroduced" to the power of this through my new therapist, who practices Hakomi. The work of raw witnessing, of reflecting back more pure perceptions, is stunningly profound and simple. Most people work "too hard" on listening, and on trying to offer insight to others when they say something back. Giving someone a conclusion, an answer, an insight, is problematic for at least a couple of reasons. 1, it's your solution, not theirs. 2, if we go back to the old adage about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish, we can see that giving someone raw reflection can allow space for them to put the pieces together, and the pieces will fit better than if you do the assembly yourself. This also requires trust on the speaker's behalf - trust that "just listening" is enough. I myself in personal relationships work with this a lot, and having good friends and a wonderful partner who know when to "offer advice" and when to "just listen," as well as a new therapist who never offers advice and always "just listens" have all deepened my experiential understanding of how spacious and compassionate these kinds of simple feedback and confirmation are.

If you are in a group situation, as my students are, you can also trust that you are listening as a group. Let your raw perceptions speak, and others may hear things and make links you yourself would not make. It can become easy to come up with "some insight" and then attach to it, have it seem crucial, want to share it, feel that the person must hear it. We can be less attached and more present with raw perceptions, and the chance for our growth, as well as the growth of the recipient(s), is far stronger.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Housework Haiku

Rain turns red blue flags
into streaks of liquid color -
prayers fly free.

Looking out over the backyard through a rain-streaked window and screen, the cool wind comes in from the tiny slits we can leave open where the rain won't leak. It's a beautiful morning - stormy, cool, and the blue sky is on its way. To my right is our sink - not yet operating, but subject of hours of conversation, action and emotion last night. House projects, it turns out, are very hard for both of us - we've put off installing this sink that we were both so happy to purchase, because we both dread doing wrong - the wrong hole, wrong place, the wrong pipes that leak. We've done errors before - all remediable, but somehow they often go unspoken, undiscussed. Last night some of them burst free, frustrations with the paint job I never touched up though I promised to, the way that Dylan moves furniture first before dealing with more complicated but also more frustrating and longer-lasting issues. Avoidance. In the intimate space of marriage, things can't go avoided for long.

"Why is it that on such important occasions - New Years, Anniversaries, etc - I get so upset? It all seems to build up and then burst out when the stakes are high."

"Well," I replied, "you've just answered your own question. The stakes are high." Personally, I've never done New Years or holidays well, either. All the old garbage drums out, sets its own stakes into the relative peace and celebration of the day. Raining on the parade, it seems.

But what is the parade without rebellion? In doing Hakomi, in working with writing practice, in meditation, I have tried to more deeply feel that which I already intellectually have been taught - resistance is where the juice is. the power locked inside our denial, internal subfertuge. When that thunder claps and cancels a Miksang shoot, like today, maybe it is bringing just the space we need. When one of us cries, can't cut a hole, gets scared to discuss our feelings, and they burst forth anyway, that's space - space being released. It isn't a burden, it isn't a blurring, it's an opening, as painful as it is.

In order to hear the beat, there has to be a not beat. In order to see the red, there has to be blue or some other color or non-color. Contrast is key. Life cannot be all one shade of happy or angry. And eventually, the sink needs to be put in so the water can flow free. But in order for that to happen, some water has to leave our eyes, too. So be it.

Putting in the sink,
we flinch at the saw sound.
Who wants to hear a cut heart?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Hakomi Therapy

Ever since my Facebook post about having an awesome Hakomi therapy experience, the crowds have been in questions - what on earth is this Hakomi thing and what exactly did I mean by an "awesome" experience? So here it comes...

Hakomi was first introduced to me by a friend who's been seeing a Hakomi-trained psychotherapist for a few months now. Every time she talked about her appointments and her therapist, I was very impressed. For someone who has been in therapy on and off for 14 years, it takes a lot to impress me now, and in fact, I haven't been in "talk" therapy for a couple of years now. I got on some meds, do a lot of meditation and writing, and for the most part, can process things out with friends or Dylan. But lately some things have gotten kicked up with my memoir writing that I felt I needed a therapist to help me deal with. So even though I got other recommendations from friends, I asked Becky to tell me what kind of practice her therapist did.

Hakomi, she told me. She had to spell it - I'd never heard it. Reiki, shamanism, acupuncture, EMDR, I've gone a lot of ways to network the mind and body, but not that. Her therapist focuses on talk therapy with a Hakomi edge - but I only found two (one of whom turned out to not be a Hakomi person after all) in Madison at all, and the one legit Hakomi person is really more, it appeared to me from her website, a massage therapist. Hmm. I like massage, but I do need *some* talking.

I emailed her with some questions about how the talk and massage worked together, and she replied. I still didn't quite get it, but something told me to keep persuing, so we talked on the phone and set an appointment. Still, I wasn't sure I could picture it - how would this work, massage and talk therapy together? I had faith, I guess you could say, or intuition that this is in fact exactly what I needed. After years of chronic issues with IBS and certain old back injuries, which have received chiropractic, acupunture and herbal help, as well as Ibuprofen, yoga, and PT, I was starting to notice that the emotional patterns didn't seem so separate from the physical ones. What if I could work on them together?

Upon meeting the therapist, I got a strong sense of being in the right place. Our minds mixed easily, but with good boundaries, and within the 1/2 hour introducing ourselves to each other, my mind offered up things I wouldn't "think" to say, and I let them come out. She told me there were many options, and always would be - I could treat it more like straightforward massage first, with bodily sensations guiding me as to what I needed, and/or what I needed to talk about, or we could start first with talking, or whatever. I chose massage - bad neck spasm that day - and was blow away by how integral, after all, the pain and issues are.

There's something about the nature of experiences that are profound that does, in fact, make them hard to describe. That's a bit how I feel right now about talking about it. I felt very vulnerable, physically revealed on the table, and my mind resisted it. She caught the resistance in the things I said, even in how my eyes looked, and kept asking me to be mindful and return to the hurt, no matter how it manifested. At every turn, every twitch, she gently witnessed for me, with me, my sensations and thoughts - thoughts as sensations. Nothing was rejected, nothing lost, all used for awareness. We certainly didn't "solve" anything, but "solving" anything I think is what has caused more problems for me in the past, in talk therapy and in body work.

I booked a second appointment, and would be happy to talk more specifically with anyone who thinks this kind of "therapy" might be right up their alley for now. I warned her that she may have referrals pouring in, that all my students may want to come to her, and she smiled. She's independently employed, too, and knows that is how business grows, even if from all the way across the country, from another Hakomi practicioner, who's never even met her.

I've had that, too, a woman join a class of mine saying that she'd just left Portland and her "writing practice instructor" told her to look for her "local writing practice teacher" when she settled in. The fact that there's only one of this therapist here in town makes me as grateful as that student was when she found me - sometimes there are none, sometimes more than one, and when you find the one right for you, regardless, gratitude ensues.

Saturday, July 17, 2010


I never have been very good at math.

My Enneagram sign (2-the Helper) says that makes sense - that I am more an ideas person than a numbers person. I'm more a person person. So when my employers tell me I'll have 17 13 or 14 year olds in my summer program for the next two weeks, it means little. Not until I see their files, then especially, not until I see their faces, will I have anything in my mind to work with.

I tried to send them some of that empty space this morning. I did Tonglen for my students-to-be (and myself!), 24 hours before the whole shebang begins. To these strangers, who to me now are what Pema Chodron calls the "neutrals" - I don't know them yet, have no expectations, they are just open slates to me. This is a pretty good state to be in, and I won't be in it again with these kids. I won't be in it with myself for two weeks, as teaching this program takes me to the edge of myself; full on energy, full on teaching skills, full on time use.

Earlier this week, Birdfarm sent me three books on teaching - the first of which I am almost done with, and which was the one she'd brought up the most when we were talking about, surprisingly, not teaching at all! We were talking about power relationships, and in particular, about one of the shoots we did this last weekend in Seattle for a Miksang Level II program I was teaching. I was describing how different the two groups gathered in one park were - white, middle-class folk in a dog park and black and Latino folk gathered at a hepped-up car show. The different groups responded quite distinctly to being photographed (our topic was "People and Other Sentient Beings") - the white middle classers scoffed a bit, posed, looked awkward; the black and Latino folks smiled, went about their business, didn't seem to care much or used it as a chance to connect, rather than disconnect.

She recommended Other People's Children by Lisa Delpit, which I certainly ordered and carried at Rainbow Bookstore for years and never ever actually looked at, seeing as how I wasn't teaching, much less teaching African-American kids. It's a great book on integration and segregation at far more nuanced levels than just "merging" kids of different races and classes - beyond the physical mixed classroom, there are power struggles at stake between, in particular, white teachers and black kids all the time.

Mainly, Birdfarm was talking about how uncomfortable "white people" (meaning, us, white, middle class Americans) are with their power, and how we purposefully or subconsciously push away our power, try to hide it, act passively, in order to disavow it. Only we still have it, and especially those with less power in the room know it for sure. When we take our power and own it, use it for the benefit of others, it's ok, and others can respect it. Usually. Unless we are secretly not benefitting others.

It's pretty complicated, obviously, but damned important going into teaching a, likely, mixed classroom of class and race variety in the next two weeks. What those figures don't tell me is how power will play out, and even the races of the kids can't tell me that. Only interaction can tell me that, and only if I listen.

Yet another reason why math doesn't particularly appeal to me.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


I went into a Post Office this afternoon, and waited in line, watching a solo woman clerk interact with numerous international students, most of whom had a limited grasp of English and couldn't understand her directions quite clearly. 2 or 3 had to come back a third time, only to be corrected and start again. Key words were missing, key ideas, and I felt the loss, felt for the international students, wondered at how privileged I am to "get it" - especially reading Other People's Children, recommended to me by Birdfarm, as of last night.

Then it was my turn. I took up a few packages - copies of my new chapbook destined to friends, a mix cd (comment on the last blog entry and you can get one, too!). One package I hadn't gotten the address for yet, and I sheepishly grabbed that one without making eye contact - Oops!, I uttered, and slipped it into my bag.

"This is wrong" she stated, and sighed, looking over her glasses at me. I felt a deep gulp arise, just from her stare. "It's written on here wrong." She paused and looked at me, and it took until she asked me if I knew how to correctly address an envelope, which I had just seen her do - for the third time - to a young Taiwanese woman - to realize she thought I wasn't from the US. I blushed, felt angry, how much mail have I sent in my life?! - then chilled down a bit - sure, I did do it wrong, turned the wrong way, only good for parcel post, not for an envelope. She carefully explained how to do it, and I asked if we couldn't just send them parcel post? Yes, but we had to move the return address around, etc. This whole time I was burning shame, burning away a feeling of having done wrong, and not because I did wrong, but because of the way she had addressed me; like a child.

In getting some space, some curiosity about the situation, which usually helps, I took a deep breath and looked around as she scanned the items and added up my total. It was then I saw a sign directly in front of me, almost impossible to miss, now that I was looking, that told me my clerk is very hard of hearing, and reads lips, so make sure to face her straight on. It also said, with a small smiley face, that sign language is spoken there.

Wow. Did I ever miss that. The power of the situation suddenly shifted, and I looked back at the clerk, re-considering our whole conversation, the way she had repeated everything very carefully to all the folks who'd come before me, always using the same phrasing.
"Will that be all for today?" she asked me, and suddenly I heard her voice another way- vulnerable, unsure, and slightly dampened, as speech from folks with hearing impediments can sometimes be - soft on the consonants.
"No, thank you," I said, sure to make eye contact with her, enunciate clearly without overexaggerating, and shaking my head. She smiled - actually smiled! - I don't think I'd looked at her face once the whole transaction, so absorbed in my own experience.


I had another blog post planned before this happened. It turns out it's still relevant. I left my psychiatrist's office with renewed prescription for meds, and a conversation she and I had had buzzing in my head. She had talked about Temple Grandin, and her latest book, which includes a concept "that I believe is as fitting for humans as animals" as she said. Grandin talks about how the "seek" part of an animal's mind - the sniffer, the explorer - manages to suppress anxiety as it is in action. So animals use it for not just the purpose of sussing out the situation, but also to alleviate anxiety about the situation. But it works the other way, too, I think. I think that sometimes we seek in order to stave off anxiety - compulsive shopping, anyone? myself included! - and that seeking can actually become drug-like - always wanting something new, for instance, instead of the "same old same old."

And yet, when we attune ourselves and become curious about the moment - like I did at the post office, like meditation trains us to do, or Miksang, or writing, or just deciding to pay attention (go Reem!), we do realize that the world is always different, always changing.

Meditation teachers say it all the time - hell, *I* say it all the time - "get curious, it'll help, help the panic, help the sadness, open things up." But now I have another understanding of this.
That the story is just that - a story - and as it turns out, the story I had in my head at the post office was just that, a story, missing a ton of the nuance in favor of a familiar situation, as gross as it was. The anxiety I had in interacting with this woman was old business, old news. It wasn't relevant - it was triggered. When I made the choice to seek out, not anything in particular, but just to sniff around a bit, I found better data, more relevant, that could help alleviate my anxiety and give perspective. For humans, I think, the "seek tampers anxiety" could be true, but of course, we can even take it a step further, have cognition about that new information. From disconnect to connect in a few short seconds.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

And yet we spend the day throwing stones at one another...

-title of blog post is lyrics from "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" by Coldcut
-image is album cover of "Alpinisms" by School of Seven Bells

I am working on a mix cd for Bermuda Triangles, my first memoir. The memoir is subtitled "A Young Woman Lost in the Sea of Intimacy" and is mostly about dating and sex, working on boundaries of intimacy and openness, from ages 8-28. I am 3/4 done with the rough draft of the book, transcribing notebook after notebook, story after story (I write in longhand first). A student and friend sent a cd of the last six months, music she found during that time that related to a certain theme, and I was reminded of my former love of "soundtracks." A feeling of the music, songs I have connected to in a span of time, whether new or older. This student/friend had helped me to make an Orphano soundtrack, back when I was working on that (not dead but currently shelved) novel about a post-apocalyptic world of parent-less folks.

So here's the soundtrack for Bermuda Triangles. Like with Orphano, I would LOVE to be able to publish a mix along with a book. It seems like such a great idea, doesn't it? Soundtrack to a movie, soundtrack to a book. I imagine it hasn't happened because it would be so hard - rights and all - and books don't gross like movies. Still, I can dream, and in the meantime, listen to songs that parallel the writing while I am writing or transcribing...

There'll be a second mix, maybe, too, but for now, this is more recent music, things I have, in fact, (re)discovered (old or new) during the writing time, as opposed to songs that were relevant during those tumultuous young dating years featured in the memoir.

Anyone who leaves a comment here on the blog gets a copy!
Make sure to email me your snail mail addy.

Bermuda Triangles Soundtrack V.1

Iamundernodisguise - School of Seven Bells
F*cking Boyfriend - The Bird and The Bee
I'm Not Calling You a Liar - Florence & The Machine
Walk a Mile in My Shoes - Coldcut
Just a Thought - Gnarls Barkley
Good Girl Gone Bad - Herbalizer
Where Are My Panties? - Outkast
Hate on Me - Jill Scott
Dickhead - Kate Nash
Nothing Out There For Me - Missy Elliot/Beyonce
Showin' Love - Nneka
We Fight/Love - Q-Tip
Save Me From What I Want - St Vincent
Quicksand - La Roux
Heart Skipped a Beat - The XX
No No No - Yeah Yeah Yeahs
O.N.E. - Yeasayer
Everybody's F*cking But Me - Asylum Street Spankers

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Gaining and Losing, or, What Gets Lost Part Two

The title of my post on losing weight wasn't called Gaining and Losing, but that was the topic.

I got many responses - comments on the blog and also over email - people noting that they, too, had in some ways had mixed feelings about losing weight. I barely addressed what I meant by that, though, and a few folks were curious. So here it goes, an attempt to get at the nuances of those "emotions stored in fat" that I was talking about...

First, please hop over to Praying Horse to read her comments, as I'd basically be repeating them.
What I have encountered is that, on a literal, external level, I have surely used fat as something to hide behind; something to blame when I am feeling sad, something to excuse self-hatred or explain it. For example, I often tell Dylan that the first sign of depression (meaning, not of emotion, but of emotions being shoved under) is me talking about or thinking about how much I hate my body. I could be the same weight as yesterday and a week before, but the "hatred" arises out of discomfort with more than my body - with emotions, in particular. So on the surface level, the fat shelters me from my own emotions, and on a surface level, I have to deal with them more, face my self-hatred for instance, if it can't hide in my fat, metaphorically.

On an inner level, I definitely rank as an emotional eater: eating when bored, sad, scared; when feeling empty, angry, tired.

But on a secret level, the relationship between fat and emotions goes even deeper for me. This is where Praying Horse's comments really come into play. There's no science, and I am not purporting a theory, rather, talking about the emotional/physical response and my intuitive feelings about connection. The way to say it that feels right to me is something like:
As I am losing weight, I am burning through old emotions that are stored IN that fat.
I have literally had dreams of childhood or adolescence, flashbacks to emotional states, and been triggered by things that haven't triggered me in a long time. This also means the positive emotions, too: felt a happiness and calm, a peace and resilience (from time to time) that I hadn't felt in a long time. Where are these coming from? Intuitively I don't think they are coming from the *fact* of losing weight as much as, as I said above, what is stored in the weight.

I did acid when I was younger on and off for a couple of years. The going theory about acid flashbacks, which I no longer suffer but did for a few years after, is that they are stored in fat. If you burn that fact, the flashbacks are released. This is the intuitive image in my mind for this weight loss/emotion gain process. It ups the ante, means I am dealing with more, and more directly, and need to not cover it over with food.

So the process of exposure, of rawness, of losing my shell and opening up, feeds itself. It's very akin to meditation, what Chogyam Trungpa calls "being processed" - eg cooked. This imagery is powerful for me as well, for obvious reasons. Cooking breaks down the chemicals, softens the walls, makes the food more digestable, palatable, even flavorful. My emotions in the last months have been like food, for sure: juicy like steak, mashed like potatoes, crisp like salad.

As I burn through layers of both my hiding in weight and also hiding from myself in eating, as well as burning through the emotions buried in the fat, I'll keep writing about it. For now, though I wanted to say a bit more about it, so you'd actually hear the experience a bit more clearly.

Any others who have experienced something akin to this, please comment. Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 02, 2010


Last night, before meditation at the Shambhala Center, I finally did one of the practices I was given at the 10-day retreat I did a week or so ago. I hadn't made space for it at home yet, and we had the supplies at the center, so since I was a bit early for setting up, I settled in and did it.

A practice I had done again and again for a week in a tent full of 100 people became, for me, intensely concentrated with just me alone in the silence of my local center's shrine room. In just 10 minutes of practicing, a LOT changed, shifted and I felt completely opened.

After meditation and cleaning up, I went home to do ordinary household things with Dylan - mow the lawn, weed, water our fruit plants/trees (strawberry plants, raspberry bushes, pear tree), etc. It was a cool evening, few mosquitoes, and the yard felt utterly alive to me. I slept heavily, fed by the hard work, though it took me awhile to go down, so entranced with the perfect evening air.

After the cats woke me at 5am, I went back to sleep and had this dream:
The Sakyong, Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, who's the main teacher in Shambhala, was staying in our house. Even in the dream I thought of a story Diana Mukpo told us at the retreat - that she and Chogyam Trungpa (Mipham's father and former head of Shambhala) used to drop by their senior students' houses without warning for dinner, to see if they were uplifting their lives for everyone, including themselves, all the time. So here he was, in our house, currently without a bathroom sink, with tumbleweeds of cat hair and dust rolling around, and dirty dishes in the sink. I was mortified, but also so glad he was in my house. I went to a talk and saw him speak there, but then went home early and stayed up late cleaning. When he came back he seemed happy but said nothing about the difference in the house.

The important thing is that *I* felt it. When I told Dylan about the dream, about the stories of dropping in on their students, he looked mortified. "Too much work," he noted, and I tried to explain again - this isn't some outside standard, this is making your home as good as you want it to truly be as often as you can so that you can be your best - most alert, most rested, most supported. He got it, then. The Sakyong appeared in my dream not to bless me, not because I am special, but to remind me that I can be as prepared for myself, as honoring of myself, as for him. That I want to be. That there is no difference between me and him.

So I cleaned up my office today, put the shrine together with new supplies, and everything somehow found its place that had seemed homeless before. Putting together the books and texts from the retreat, a photo of the Sakyong fell out of my bag and landed face up on the floor. A slight smile, eyes directly looking at me, he reflected my own state - cleanliness is next to godliness, yes, but not some external god. Our own internal god, our own internal basic goodness, beyond good and bad, can land and open best in an uncluttered space.

The practice opened me up to this, I know that for certain. It, ironically, instead of taking me back to the retreat, brought me more here - into my home, into my life, into my "stuff" (of literal and metaphorical meaning). It's about time - as the retreat becomes more of a dream in my mind, a memory, the past, I don't want the teachings and their effect on me to fade. Last night was a reminder of how quickly it can all come back, and then some.

Here's to tasting just enough of the dream to sharpen up reality.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What Gets Lost?

(Image of me at a student's farm teaching a retreat this last weekend,
by Dayna Flores)

"If you lose your mind, come back again"
A slogan from Shambhala Sun Camp

For over a month now, Dylan and I have been doing Weight Watchers. The first couple of weeks were awkward - adjusting to their point system, shocked by how little or much certain things "cost" me. But once I got used to it (and, in fact, went on 10 day retreat where I couldn't enter my info onto the online app or system all the time, which is how you really keep track if you are doing it online rather than "in person" meetings, but still somehow did pretty well, intuitively) it really made sense to me. It still does. There's a sense of how much something "costs" us financially, as always, can we afford to eat out, if so, how much, etc. Then there's now also a sense of what "costs" us physically - I worked out, I have some extra points saved up, so we can go to Culver's if we don't go out again this week anywhere with more than salads.

I like this way, frankly. I have tried "diets" with "calorie counting" before and it hasn't worked - too much to keep track of. This makes it simpler, and comes at a time when, due to Dylan reducing work hours to keep his sanity and assist me in my "business" side of teaching, we are on a tighter financial budget, too. As we buckle down on eating out to save money, we buckle down also on eating to save calories, fat, and weight. So far Dylan has lost 12 pounds, and I've lost 10.

"33 for 33" is our mutual goal - we both turned 33 this year, and losing 33 pounds for each of us would put us both in "healthy range" for our heights, etc, from where we were when we started. But as friends have pointed out, the benefits of WW are long-lasting - even if you don't consciously or electronically "track" your "expenditures" you become far more aware of costs and gains.

I feel it's a bit like a game, actually. Move this here, like Tetris, and weight will drop.
; )
There's strategy for sure - eat as many veggies as you want, basically, because they cost "nothing" in comparison to french fries. And so on, and so on...

This week a "hidden" gain/loss has come up - and it's a bit of both. A feeling of sadness, disconnect with my body has emerged - old trauma mixed with new stories and struggles. I have heard over the years about all that we carry in fat - hormones, emotions, toxins - and I wonder, can't help but wonder, if both literally and metaphorically I am losing some of the weight, the hidden fears and secrets, issues and suffering, that had trapped itself in my extra weight. Or even more likely, losing weight is taking away my barriers, my protection from these darker, harder places, all of which are centered around body image and body hurt. So far it actually feels harder, worse, than it has in awhile - I commented to Dylan that I am more aware now of how "fat" I feel because I am losing weight than I was while I was stuck at one place and in denial - but also real and raw, as if I am ready to work with all of this energy that's been caught inside me.

Food for thought, literally.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

"So, What Was It Like?"

Photo of the Great Stupa of Dharmakaya from my retreat.

This is the question, the inevitable, loving, probing question, one receives upon returning home after being gone for 12 days anywhere. But this question takes on special space when one is returning from a meditation retreat. Before I left, my sister-outlaw Patty (who will be my sister-in-law in a few months) noted that I was pretty courageous to go sit with myself. That was pretty outstanding of her to see - most folks see "retreat" and think "peaceful" and "vacation." The point is, of course, that there is no real thing as a vacation and that peace only comes through facing the deep stuff head on.

What I attended is a program called Warrior Assembly at Shambhala Mountain Center, in the Flatirons of the Rocky Mountains. It's what we call a "land center" - for instance, the center I direct in Madison is a "city center" - SMC and a few other locations are out in the wild, based on the raw land instead of in cities. SMC is the largest of the land centers - both by size and permanent staff - and 8,000 feet up, it's as raw as raw gets. I did my month-long meditation retreat there four years ago (dathun: month sit) and though I have visited other centers since then (Karme Choling, for instance) I knew I wanted to return to SMC for another program. As the program got closer I dreamt of the bouldering and dryness, the sun and the Stupa, the wide-open nights and small-town sized staff and program participants (300 is the average population during the summer, far larger than the local hole in the road for getting liquor and other amenities called Red Feather Lakes).

Warrior Assembly is a cumulative program - a 10 day celebration chock full of various practice transmissions at the end of two years' worth of 1o weekend programs. I actually qualified to do it over three years ago, but time, money and frankly, enthusiasm, to do it didn't pique until now. I had wanted to do the "more traditional" seminary path in Shambhala Buddhism - dathun is the first part, then Sutrayana seminary, then Vajrayana, and I will still do those latter parts. But between the requirements changing (one now needs to do Warrior Assembly to do Vajrayana) and some encouragement from the local sangha, as well as a decision by one of my best friends and my co-practioner Becky, with whom I did all of the other programs, I knew it was time.

Despite the fact that everyone thinks I was in silence for 10 days, I wasn't. There are many forms of retreat, and this one, I'd say, is more focused around Enlightened Society (Shambhala-speak for "not just sitting on your duff and meditating but actually doing something with what you learn to help the world"). The name of the program refers to the Shambhala path, which in some ways can be called "The Way of the Peaceful Warrior." One of the practices, the Dorje Kasung, have the slogan "Victory over War." How can we, while talking, walking, interacting; working, loving, organizing, still keep our heads on our shoulders, keep a good head and shoulders, and not just while sitting silently in a tent weeping our way through our deep dark issues?

I've done the month-long sit, and I'm hear to say that for my experience, the 10 days with some talking was far harder than a month in silence. I really have come to terms with my social anxiety in sangha-work - folks with whom I can be brutally honest, neurotic and even funny have helped me to face those anxieties and see them as hollow shells. Or so I thought. Put me instead into a 100-person container of strangers, give me a bunch of powerful transmissions and turn up the weather (40 degrees and raining the first three days, 80 degrees, windy and dry the rest of the time) and I quickly became raw, broken down, what Chogyam Trungpa, the founder of Shambhala, calls "thorougly processed." Insecurities and old habits appeared almost instantly - struggling to find ways to be accepted by others, scrambling for some kind of ground in a totally groundless container, even if the ground was neurotic and shit-filled, which is pretty much was inside my own mind.

Things I thought I was "over with" came back with vengeance and kicked my ass. All this time, though, others showed such love and honesty, containing me and my inner damage while taking care of themselves. It became clear pretty quickly - even then, but especially now in retrospect - that I was in fact having a "sane breakdown" if that makes any sense - not that it has to make sense. Breakdown in the sense that my ego, the part that says who I am and what I like every day, got lost along the way, and some other me, some deeper ground of fear and goodness, of sadness and joy, got the mic for a few days.

My last memory of the retreat is of the campfire on the final night, songs and jokes making the rounds with 25 or so of us watching the tail end of the fire and many shooting stars scratching across the sky. I snuggled into the middle of a pile of my spiritual peers - fellow Warriors, not against anything, but for sanity, in both a personal and total sense, and all the dirt dug up turned into a deep affection for the work, for these other workers, for the world. In that open space, the mountains brazen against the sky, turned white by the sun and wind - in that open space, everything lay out to dry - my self-defeating habits, my deep love of humanity - and from the charnel ground remains some seeds were planted of which I have a feeling it will take time to see the fruits. After ten days like that, I HOPE it takes time for them to fruit - I'm not sure I could harvest them right now.

"Can't you be more specific?" some of you are saying... "What did you do all day?"

A special calligraphy practice for three hours every morning. Two to three hour talks every day in the afternoon by the program directors. An hour or three of silent shamatha sitting meditation every day. Hour-long silent lunches eaten in the shrine room out of a single bowl. Discussion groups with other practicioners alternated with one-on-one meditation instruction meetings. Group breakfasts and dinners in uplifted dress. Early morning or late night independent hikes to the Stupa or Kami Shrine, or Marpa Point. The times in between filled with far-from-silent discursive but also often brilliant conversation with any of the 100+ other participants or staff.

It was a lot like life, in other words, and a lot not. Very social, very busy - only also very focused with a lot of practice.

Photos will be up soon on Facebook and Flickr - though I didn't take many, wanting to focus on the new practices, as Miksang sometimes takes me away in a situation like this, instead of taking me deeper in. I'm happy to answer any questions, if possible! - in comments section. Thanks for listening.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Soul II Soul in my head today...

I arrived home yesterday mid-evening, after a non-stop flight from Denver. DIA is the most sprawled out airport I have ever had the misfortune to travel through (and one I usually avoid, though the treat of a non-stop from retreat is a worthy price to pay). It can take an hour and a half to get from arriving at the airport to get to one's gate, and that's at a steady gait, and the stress level of all the arrivees so pushed to the limit to meet their departures heightens the overall atmosphere in an uncomfortable way.

Also, of course, I was coming out of 10 days of retreat.

Sitting at Paradise Cafe in Boulder, eating salads before returning the rental car and RTD'ing our way down to DIA, Becky and I both consumed quickly, out of synch with each other for the first time in almost two weeks. At one point I stopped and looked at her and we both grimaced. I said something to the effect of "I hadn't realized at the time how synchronized all of us were with each other - not just in the same program, but eating the same meals, using the same bathrooms, and, of course, meditating together, practicing together, etc." She nodded. The follow-up comparison wasn't necessary, but I added it anyway, "Now of course I realize that in absentiae."

Madison is calmer, more like on retreat, only with far more familiar faces. Madison is more laid back than either Boulder or Denver Airport, or at least, my neighborhood is. Even the friends I ran into on my morning walk and breakfast trip realized I had just arrived home last night and to go easy on me. I, luckily, realize the same. This is what makes a "successful re-entry" - going easy on one's self - the emails, the phone calls, the face-to-face contact with what appears to be the same old world one left, only it is just as changed as the person who left is changed.

Back to life, back to the day we have
Let's end this foolish game
Hear me out don't let me waste away
Make up your mind so
I know where I stand

This isn't a romantic message to Dylan. It isn't romance at all. I got home from my morning errands to the main line in my head, and I looked up the words. A song I had heard before as a relationship plea, I now hear as a message from me to me - we're back, don't let what we gained waste away - make up our mind so we can stand tall again, re-entering reality.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Inside Story

Tomorrow I leave for a 12 day retreat. There will be a lot of inside time - out in the mountains, camping, programs in large tents, exposed to the elements - but inside of me, I'll be going in.

An acquaintance once said long ago that he hated the word "retreat" - it implied one was disappearing, escaping, going away, giving up. He proposed "intreat" (as opposed to entreat, which may also be a part of intreating!). Yes. I agree.

See you on the other side of my 12-day intreat.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Noticing Narcissism

Yes. I've gone from Watching the Watcher to Noticing Narcissism, in a week. I'd like to think that this is a common occurrence for others, but I think it's more likely a common occurrence for me. I was raised by a Narcissist, a fact thoroughly overshadowed by her alcoholism and undiagnosed depression and social anxiety. I thought that people who generally disliked themselves couldn't be narcissists, as demonstrated in the classic mythology by the title character who falls in love with his own face.

However, a good therapist awhile back pointed out that this was not, in fact, the case. Narcissists, by modern definition (at least, though maybe not Greek) are folks who focus things on themselves, who center life and others' responses on themselves, take things personally, are always acting in their own self-interest. Out of my interest, I will look up a definition from the dictionary for us:
From New World Dictionary:
narcissism |ˈnärsəˌsizəm|
excessive or erotic interest in oneself and one's physical appearance.
• Psychology extreme selfishness, with a grandiose view of one's own talents and a craving for admiration, as characterizing a personality type.
See note at egotism .
• Psychoanalysis self-centeredness arising from failure to distinguish the self from external objects, either in very young babies or as a feature of mental disorder.

Huh. They seem to be perpetuating the same misunderstanding. Interesting.

The book that helped me to understand this was Trapped in the Mirror by Elan Golomb. The same therapist recommended it, and I understood more by reading it than any ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) or even "having lost both of your parents by the age 20" materials had taught me.

It also made me sit up and pay attention to what happens when I leave the watcher and head into strong self-interest - beyond self-protection and into dangerously depressed areas. It can have the feeling of glee, but mostly it's me sheltering myself in a place that reflects me back to myself.

For instance, we met our brand new neighbors yesterday. They were inside, prepping to paint their house (which is, we knew from before, EXACTLY like ours, except for cosmetic differences done over the last 80 years or so, which are really quite limited) and we stopped in and said Hi. They let us see the empty "mirror" (her word, not mine!) of our house, and I know for Dylan, it triggered a desire to get our space as empty as possible, as seeing empty rooms often does to him.

For me? Although it was interesting, all I wanted to do was go downstairs and tell them to come over so they could see what we had done to our space, and be inspired. On the surface its a helpful thing, but mostly it's filled with pride. We have much to be proud of - we've worked hard on the house and it is really cute! - but I wanted that more than to hear about their projects or plans. And I quickly figured out that I wanted them to know about our lives more than I want to know about theirs. Really? I thought to myself vaguely, but then plunged forward and took any chance I could to fill them in. Is this a response to weeks - now over 16 of them - teaching kids and adults to speak for themselves? Do I want to be heard again? Regardless, and there are many compassionate contextual explanations, narcissism was definitely rearing its head.

This isn't a problem, by the way. I am not disturbed by it, persay, but as a student used to say to me, it's probably just lucky that that's how I am today that it isn't bothering me, that I don't see it as a problem. Tomorrow I might have seen it that way. I am grateful for my neutral attitude about it. I woke this morning feeling, yes, these were the first words I thought, HUNGOVER as if I'd had too much wine, conversation and song all night. Without the alcohol I had gotten high on the idea of new people we like already, who complimented our taste highly all throughout the house, who loved our choice of counters. I wanted to show off and it fed me, fed me to model for someone else - here we are, established, a couple of years older, and they can learn a lot from us. Never once did I ask myself what we could learn from them.

And after all, this is the thing that worries me. It's not my Narcissistic tendency (which I know is there, it's ok, we all have things like this, even if not this, I remember now) - it's the suffering that results, which after all, is the same as mental suffering of other flavors. The desire to see myself as separate, the disconnect from others that only causes me more pain. The highness, the "up" feeling that is inevitably followed by a crash and hollowness.

Of course, as soon as I woke, I was curious about them: this is the result of years and years of therapy and, as I wrote this week, "listening for a living." I have forged new pathways than those my mother forced out of habit, and though I may be high on myself for an evening, I can come back down soon enough to limit the damage. I am very grateful for that, for noticing the narcissism when it comes, and being able to label it, sooner rather than later, and act in another way with choice. This is the only thing that counts - not the activity, but the agency, to me. I can carry all kinds of labels - and they are mirrors of those my mother left me - but what I do with them in the long run, noticing and working with them, is what counts.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Watching the Watcher

We began Weight Watchers on Monday.

This is after a weekend of watching a friend interact with her WW app on her iPhone at a Buddhist program in Chicago being lead by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. We spent much of the time at the retreat talking about "who is doing the watching?" when we become, or aware, that we are thinking, or have even awareness of our object of meditation - breath, candle, sleepiness.

The sense of balancing watching - watching without judgment, watching with curiosity, watching from a slight distance, after all, if one is watching oneself, one has to be beyond one's own nose to do it - and yet, staying connected - is hard stuff. I appreciate just how difficult these practices I have been doing and teaching for years now actually are in a new way. In the past I've given up on tracking my spending because it always shocked me how little bits of spending add up so quickly. The same can be said for calories, for "spending" energy in output/activity and bringing in nutritious food that can be more easily and efficiently burned.

Which, if we take out the word "food" and just use "energy" could be the same said for yoga, for meditation, for writing practice, for Miksang photography.

Again, back to the "resolution" word for Dylan and myself from the last two New Years - "consumption" - watching our cycles of in and out with regards to money, to energy, to food. Somehow, though, my watcher has changed, is gentler, more curious when the "points" (calories+fat+fiber in WW speak) go over, more motivated to keep at the math than ever before. Maybe now is the time, the right time, to let the watcher watch over me. I watch my watcher and notice her newer personality and feel like I can trust her to do some of the work for me.

That's a nice feeling, to not have to watch the watcher, and let her do her job.