Wednesday, December 31, 2014

New Year's Intention

Every December in the last few years, I have practiced an adaptation of a game/exercise/prompt that visiting friends did with us five years ago. At that time, they mentioned they had begun to set an intention word for the year - a word to explore, to replace "resolutions" and instead be curious. That first year, my partner and I both chose "consumption" and explored that relationship via food, money and more throughout the year with as little aggression and as much curiosity as we could.

The next year, I picked another task-y like word, but the last few years I've been picking more open words, verbs like 2013's "Play," or 2014's "Breathe." This year, in late November I started to feel the call of intention words, exploring candidates like "Balance" that came to me on their own accord. After being pretty sure for a couple of weeks that "Balance" was the winner, I stumbled into "Value" in writing one day and realized it had a lot more juice: challenge, fear, power - than "Balance." So my 2015 word is "Value."

Here's the prompt I used at the beginning of 2014 for my writing classes to find their intention word:
I want you to find a word:
an intention word/s, a sankalpa*, for this year.

Explore. Play. Find a word or words or
start writing and let the word or words find you.
Try to soften and let it happen.

This is not a resolution.
This is not expectation.
This is finding a word or words you can weave into all you do for the next year.

If you already have an intention word, use this time to break it open.
Experiment with future six word stories for 2015.
Let the word/s fall apart and show you what they have to really say.
In my New Year's Intention Retreat, the first weekend of the year (this year's is this upcoming weekend), we use a period of silent contemplation to invite the word to come to us, then contemplate all the associations/meanings that arise, then write. The key factor is to INVITE the word, rather than forcing it or searching for it. 

Many folks find that one "doesn't come" the first time around, that they find many or none. That's fine. Keep staying open to what words want to attach to you for the next span of time.

This year, I am adding in work based on Danielle LaPorte's Desire Map. The gist of her work, though getting the book is both useful and powerful, is to search for - or invite - three or more words that match how you want to FEEL in any/all of your activities, so you can use them as feedback to see if what you are doing matches how you want to be feeling. I will be offering some exercises in this direction this weekend as well. I find her approach - instead of affirmations or resolutions or goals, looking for a felt sense of result and aiming for that - quite useful and in compliment to setting New Year's Intentions.

Play. Explore. Invite. If you have ways you use to prepare for the New Year, leave them here.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Compassion: A Short Fiction Story

I get to offer you another incredible piece written by a student for my prompt on Compassion a few weeks ago. As always, it is unedited, written rawly this way. Powerful stuff.

This one blew all of us away. This student, Kika, doesn't usually write in fiction and we were immediately pulled into the world she describes - the snow, the insect, the mug, the window.

The ambiguity she addresses was universal in so many student writings that week. Compassion: we want it to be easy and clean. But it isn't.

Please enjoy.

Compassion. It was the guiding force in her life - or at least, she liked to think so.

As she watched the bundled humans toddle past in their heavy boots and scarves, Clementine noticed an insect crawling up the window pane. It had a long, narrow body and bowed legs, with delicate wings in four sections. It was a pale green color, at odds with the weather, and it used its antennae to gently tap the glass, as it it, too, wanted to be out in the snow, moving through that fresh glittering white. Where had it come from? Clementine was overcome with tenderness at its unlikely presence, its fragility, its ghostly vernal beauty. She looked at the glass again; such a thin pane, old enough that cool drafts seeped from it, causing her to clutch the mug of tea more tightly. It had been a bad idea to put cold cream in the tea. In December it was always best to heat the cream, so both vessel and drink stayed hotter longer. A warm kind of company, almost like holding hands with someone you love.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Let Some Shit Lie.

Day 8 of ‪#‎Quest2015‬ - The prompt of the day from Eric Klein:

How will you face your shadow bag and stop the stink, so you can bring forth what is best within you in 2015? What can you claim right now?

What I can claim is that I do this work all the time, constantly. In fact, dragging around the bag tired me out years ago. What wears at me now is actually the work of scooping it up. I am ready to let some shit lie there and let it stink.

I find I am tired now because I have dug a bit deeper recently than usual, and pulled up some plugs that I knew were keeping my drains from flowing freely. Now that the fluids are rolling out again, I need to lay back and let myself go out with the waters.

My only shadow is what I keep from myself, whether out of survival/protection or in some kind of saving face/flying under detection manoeuvre. For awhile now I have had recurring neck issues, and worked through them with Hakomi therapy and also chiropractor work. These have both been useful, but as some recent deep re-configuring of grief over my mother's death has arisen, I had suspected that my neck and my sadness were deeply entangled.

At a meditation instructor training I found incredible palpable energetic evidence that they are. In situations, repeatedly as we practiced and trained, I tracked as my body tensed and mind became righteous, worried because "the person in charge" (not me) was "not doing their job" and so "someone had to do something" and "the only person who could/would do it was me." In these tiny interactions, the teachers detected my aggressions before I did, mirroring back a struggle I didn't realize I was having. My peers, the other students, mirrored back gratitude that I interrupted unhealthy situations. But my body felt exhausted, like it had been climbing uphill all day.

I had to ask myself, once I saw how clearly I was triggered, then reacting to my sense of lost power with incredibly controlling behavior, what was really going on? The answer was clear as day: I was taken back to a place, the place I visited so frequently when my father died (I was 12) and my mother didn't know how to stay alive - the place, the era, the state of mind of unpredictability, drinking, incredibly hostility at home. It only lasted a few years - and in fact, got better in the last few years of her life - but I was so traumatized that for a long time all I would feel was shock, tension and control whenever a situation seemed at all unstable for me.

Cue now.

So this is the current shadow. They get subtler over time - when I told one person what I was wrestling with, after our group meeting, she screwed up her face and looked at me oddly. What? I hadn't been controlling, she said. But my body told me otherwise. I use "controlling" not to be judgmental but to get to the core of what that energy-draining background program has been trying to do, unconsciously, for over half my life now.

I am ready to pull the plug on this shadow beast, but of course that's not how it works.

Instead I am using this darkest time of the year to rest, and to merge a bit, with long moments of deep breaths, with this inner core pain.

Hello in there, dear shadow.
Let's air you out and maybe you won't stink so much.
Let's go for a walk together, get you out and about.
Let's get you more familiar with life so it doesn't freak you out so much.
We are about to do some flying and I need you to be willing to let some shit lie so we can take off together into the huge sky of 2015.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stopping for Discomfort

(Photo from Lynda Barry's latest - and brilliant - book, Syllabus.)

So. I have a - what? Confession? Revelation? Insight? - little something to share with you. Sometimes I catch myself taking down other teachers. Disparaging other Dharma guides, ripping down writing instructors, pitching tar at other photo folk. 

I am sure you are not shocked to hear this - you know, better than I do, that I am imperfect and human and that's the only way I am ever going to be. But, of course, I have lots of shame and blame around it. And when I told my wife about the following story early this morning, she implored me to blog about it. It also happens to fit with the #quest2015 #stop prompt for this week, thanks to Charlie Gilkey.

Here's what happened.

In the tiny week of classes right before Thanksgiving, one of my most dedicated students mentioned she got into a workshop with Lynda Barry. 

Lynda Barry is a local yokel, who luckily is gaining more and more cred, now that she has published not just collections of Marlys and occasional memoir/novel action, but three books on the mystery of creativity. She went to school with Matt Groening (Simpson's creator). She's quirky, loud, funny as fuck and super smart. 

I've had the great fortune to attend talks by her over the years, and two of her writing workshops. To those who know her work, I've been known to say I would like to be a blend of her and Natalie Goldberg (with whom I have studied a great deal, and is also quirky, but a lot quieter and more, well, Zen, in the real sense). All of this is background to make the conversation I am about to impart all the more aberrant.

Said student announced to her small-attended class that week that she got into a workshop with Lynda. While Lynda is local, she is also very popular and it can be hard to get your "one-time" spot in one of her free workshops. So it was a coup. I was surprised to detect my first reaction - a bit of a scoff, mostly internal. Barely detectable.

The other students asked who Lynda is, what her workshops are like. No one else knew, so I kind of described her process. I have found it disappointingly one-pointed in the past - after two workshops I really didn't need more, since she always recites the same poem and gives the same assignments.

So what did I say to the students? 
Did I say I was disappointed?
Did I say that to do it once was amazing?
Did I acknowledge her broad and deep exploration of memoir, fiction and what she calls "image" - the deep well of memory and creativity that lives in us all?

I said this:
(Gah I don't even want to write it!)
"Well, she's a bit of a one-trick pony."

As soon as it left my mouth I wanted to cram it back in: foot-in-mouth disease.

Now I know what happened: I did not stop to check my own discomfort. I got too easy, too informal and in an icky way, said something gossipy. I back paddled, trying to explain while also covering my own ashamed ass. The student attending the workshop looked a little sad, the others shrugged. 

I apologized for it again before class ended, but the damage was done. 
To them?
To me.

At the time I had no idea what had happened, not really, besides being a bit mean and inappropriate. But I used it to beat the fuck out of myself for weeks after. Really. Like not-sleeping, rolling the bitterness over and over in my tongue without resolve, without any compassion for myself. It's when my wife said I should write about it, that clearly I was still carrying it around, that I finally felt myself soften.

And why did that happen? Because this week I caught myself - after the fact - blaming myself for some things a student said to another student in one of my classes. Perhaps because I was already overloaded with shame/blame background noise, I saw it faster, and saw the same thing was happening here.

Its all nice and good to realize it after, but ideally I can feel the discomfort that precedes such pinning down self-blame on the spot, before it morphs into crunchy, sticky self-denigration.

And how will I stop this?
I will practice stopping it - it will never fully go away! - by noticing. I will stop it by stopping. Stopping when I feel unsure, instead of leaping into idle speech. 

I will, as I said in a post awhile back, stop drop and roll:

And when I don't stop until after? 
When the confusion lingers? 

I will stop as soon as I am able and get some compassion going. After all, this is meditation in action. Compassion as practice. Accepting imperfection as the only way it can be done. 

And I will also admit, discuss, lance the infection with some self-reflection. 

Let the disparaging that comes out of places of discomfort and disappointment stop as soon as it can, and re-route that energy into learning for the next time.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Feast of Plenty

A prompt from a couple of weeks ago, "Feast of Plenty," inspired this response from a student. We were all struck by how the container of one year showed such a dramatic difference in her life. Without being sentimental or romantic, she shows a serious reversal of thinking along with her reversal of fortune, so to speak.

When I asked her if she wanted this to be anonymous or with her name, she said: "No anonymity needed. I shout my truths loudly and unapologetically from rooftops." Excellent courage and power.

Feast of Plenty
Polly Sackett

This will be the first year that I will not write several checks to charitable giving and 503 c organizations. Goodman, Second Harvest, Common Wealth. I don't chip* anymore. This is the first year that my children and I will not go to Farm and Fleet toyland to purchase gifts for children in the Goodman Center holiday gift sponsorship program.

No, this is the year that I ask the Goodman Center if my children can be sponsored. Boy - age 7 - loves Rick Riordan books and Legos. Girl - age 5 - any little toys she can use to manipulate and play out her world.

This is the year of foodstamps. This is the year of eating out of the free box at work. This is the year of filling my van with gas only $15 at a time. 

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Spontaneity, Serendipity, Accuracy and Curation

Quest 2015 Prompt from Jason Silva*
In what ways might you artfully curate your life in 2015 to occasion serendipity, creativity and awe?
Ontological designing says: We design our world and the world designs us back.
What are the linguistic and creative choices you can make in 2015 that will in turn act back upon you and transform you?
Lately, Ilana and I have been speaking to "curating" our lives: directing what we want to happen and making it happen. For instance, for me, a day off is a bit risky - so easy to consume lots of social media, even overwork, only to get to the end of the day and not have done the things I want to do and actually need to do: meditate, practice, write, exercise.

So how can I curate my life, my days off, like an exhibit - seeing on the wall what I want there - without overplanning it/overstructuring it so the exhibit feels like one of the walls at an early Paris museum?

So this question - curating to occasion serendipity, creativity and awe - takes me back to a core principle - a few of them - in Shambhala Buddhism.

1. The relationship between spontaneity and accuracy: Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to the necessity to allow for spontaneity in order to find accuracy. We so often emphasize planning/accuracy over spontaneity. But the natural order is in fact to arrive at spontanenity first, then allow accuracy to arise from that. In other words: if we are truly present, what is needed will arise.**

2. Serendipity - or magic - arises out of every situation. It is always there. Always. The question is: are we practicing - eg curating - our lives enough to recognize it? Sakyong Mipham often speaks to the fact that we already know how to meditate and contemplate - we just usually use these practices to focus on getting what we want or eliminating pain or ignoring what we don't want to see. If we use these practices - this power of mind that already exists - to see what is actually here, then we find we have all we need.**

3. Therefore, if I curate my life to allow for spontaneity, I will find the serendipity that is always there. Now the question: how do I curate for this? The answer might seem contradictory, but here Trungpa Rinpoche speaks to "intelligent spontaneity" and the role of discipline. I find the "answer" - mind you, not simple and not one-time, is practice. Doing the very things I avoid if I don't schedule them - same list - writing, exercise, meditation, practice - these are the things I have to structure (aka discipline) in order to allow for the space needed for serendipity.

As always, the questions I constantly, gently ask myself are:
Am I using this for compassion or to beat myself up?
Am I using this because it helps me feel better and be better or not?
Is this what is needed now?

I try to stay in touch with how it feels when I don't do what I want - see list above - and when I do,
that is the best motivation for me. What I do find, when I do practice, when I do curate: spontaneity arises around those structures and out of those spaces, serendipity knows where to find me.

*Quest 2015 is a "do it together" 2015 planning group happening with Jeffrey Davis. Here's a link to the video about this December 2014 curating-serendipity-group!
**I find it very, very important to state that none of these teachings are "prosperity principle" or abundance related in a financial way. I struggle with money, as so many do, and the idea here is NOT to blame ourselves if we don't have enough to eat, enough shelter, enough health or money. The main understanding is that of the daily suffering so many people experience, so much of it is mental state-based. If we can adjust our mental state, we can access clearer mental states and lower our amount of mental suffering. For most of us, that means that other forms of suffering will decrease, too. But it takes work and doesn't happen automatically. It is up to us - and up to the systems of oppression around us to get with what is happening, too.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Gritty Compassion

Note: I am participating in Quest2015 with Jeffrey Davis and company. This is the first post in response to themes they are giving us. So you'll see some extra hashtags and the like here. Thanks for the prompt this time, Jen Louden!

Grit without compassion is just grind. What would be most fun to create this year? How can self-compassionate grit support you in that creating? - See more at:
Grit without compassion is just grind. What would be most fun to create this year? How can self-compassionate grit support you in that creating?
-Jen Louden

Last night, unable to sleep because I was up working on memoir stuff and writing poetry (a great reason not to be sleeping! Inspiration!) I also did some reading in preparation for a meditation instructor training I am taking in December. It's a familiar chapter - the Four Foundations of Mindfulness in a book called Heart of the Buddha by Chogyam Trungpa. These are super essential, really fundamental teachings, the four foundations, and I have come back to them again and again - there are many eras of highlights, underlining, notes to refer to notes, marginalia from all kinds of stages in my Buddhist and Shambhala journey.

I glanced at a page in the chapter before (Intellect and Intuition), which speaks to Idiot Compassion, one of my favorite phrases from Trungpa Rinpoche. Idiot compassion is when we are actually using what we call compassion in an un-useful way - contributing to co-dependence, enabling, etc, to use common psychological terms. I love his teachings on this, and so read further, even though it wasn't assigned.

Then I spotted the word Karuna, which is another word for compassion (the most common Sanskrit word we use for compassion in the west is Maitri/Metta, which means Loving Kindness). I didn't know of the word karuna until the last couple of years. I am now taking part in a program called Karuna Training, which began in November of 2014 and will go for two years. Here's what Trungpa Rinpoche has to say about Karuna:
Karuna is usually translated as "compassion." However, the word compassion is filled with connotations in English which have nothing to do with karuna. So it is important to clarify what is meant by enlightened compassion  and how it differs from our usual notion of compassion... Enlightened compassion is not quite as simple-minded as that notion of a kindly, well-meaning soul...compassion is a state of calmness; it also involves intelligence and enormous vitality. Without intelligence and skillfulness (dare I say, grit?), compassion can degenerate into a bungling sort of charity.... In this type of compassion we do not just blindly launch into a project but we look into situations dispassionately.
Here's why this passage echoed in my head this morning. 
When I read Jen's prompt, I read it like this:
Compassion without grit is just grind.
Interesting mis-read, no? 

For someone who works with people in an ostensibly helping way, as a dharma teacher, this "mis-read" is actually more powerful for me. I can certainly find "compassion" (I put in quotes because real compassion is not like this) to be grinding - feel compassion fatigue, as the social work field calls it. I need some grit - some reality, some traction, some deep but practical reason - to feel and practice compassion.

The grit I find works best is to let myself rub up against structure - sort of like discipline but more flexible and loving. For instance, when I do self-care (self-compassion, in Jen's phrase above), I do get more done. I often have such a dim view of self-care - even though I think it's a good idea, the self-hatred kicks in before I even attempt to go to the gym, meditate, write, etc.

I know I am not alone in this. But here's what really makes life less of a grind - and I'll say it loud and clear here! - to actually DO THE GRIND - the gritty stuff like self-care and eating right, etc. those things actually help me feel less grind-y and more involved in real life. Otherwise I am just going through the motions in my work, and not really caring deeply for myself, or anyone else by extension.

And as for my work? The main work I need to do is make my work more financially sustainable. Though it often feels like "one more thing I have to do" it, too, is like going to the gym and eating right and meditating - essential self-care. Baseline self-care. And it all helps me be more present and truly compassionate for my students, my wife, my life.